How many lies are too many lies?

15 Jan

by Dr Stewart Hase

“In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
― George Orwell

The storming of America’s Bastille, the Capitol Building has, finally, forced the debate that we needed to have had years ago. Propaganda, lies, and misinformation have been with us for thousands of years – they are part of the human condition. Print media has long traded on the propensity for humans to need simple solutions to complex issues, to accept whatever reinforces their biases, to be influenced by the influential, to respond to emotions rather than facts or science. Murdoch and others have made the trade in misinformation and artform. The communication tech giants just did what they thought was their job, being vehicles, platforms, for people to communicate. They never gave the consequences a thought.

January the 6th and the threat of major protests across the USA up to the inauguration have created the perfect storm for a sudden gnashing of teeth. Finally, the lines are being drawn, pretty well in accord with the right and left of politics, about what constitutes freedom of speech. Are their conditions in which it is fine to lie, to spread misinformation, distort or ignore the facts, quote questionable ‘science’, to spread hate, and slur others? To create the conditions to overthrow democracy?

Well, Scott Morrison seems to think so by refusing to censor Craig Kelly over his Trumpian behaviour, using the ‘freedom of speech’ argument. Not a whisper from anyone on the right about his mate, George Christianson who, among other things and blind to the irony of it, wants to censor the tech giants for fact checking. Freedom of speech, then, means anything goes-say what you want. The real tragedy is that Facebook have let Kelly and Christianson get away with campaign of disinformation for so long. 

Kelly has now used the platform to discredit the wearing of masks by children, calling it child abuse, has prompted the use of hydroxychloroquine in the past and now thinks that Betadine (a topical antiseptic) is the miracle cure. All based on unsubstantiated and even spurious research. What they fully realise is that they are coming from a position of power, and, wanting hope and miracle cures to reduce their anxiety, many will believe what they say. And even act on it. 

No doubt that such power massages the politicians’ fragile egos.

The best that even the health Minister, Greg Hunt, can manage is to say that we should listen to the health experts. No censorship of his compatriots or recognition of the misinformation. Just a beige response.

Now we have the acting PM, Michael McCormack legitimising MPs who want to spread lies and disinformation, claiming that facts are contentious, and gracing us with the profound logic that the sky can be grey and blue at the same time because facts are subjective. Presumably he’s a fan of Kellyanne Conway’s thesis on alternate facts.

Not content with that, McCormack has now fuelled a storm by making an astounding comparison between the riots in Washington and the BLM protests.

We have seen the result of the ‘say what you want’ version of free speech in America and how democracy is being tragically undermined. The question is, when will we follow suit? We already saw an inkling of this with Tony Abbot’s unconscionable dismantling of Julia Gillard that went unchecked, and was fuelled by the media of the print and the social kind.

Australia is good at lying to itself. It’s done it for years over racism and misogyny. Are we going to kid ourselves that we are a fair, progressive, intelligent nation while allowing the manipulation of truth, as identified by George Orwell, to run rampant? 

How far are we willing to go? Perhaps fostering hate to the point that people feel that it is OK to kill? Allowing the entitled to destroy our democracy, as nearly happened in America over recent weeks?

How far Australia, how far?

Stewart is a psychologist with a special interest in how people adapt and also learn. He’s written widely in these areas. He continues to consult, and annoy people who misuse power. Twitter: @stewarthase

3 Responses to “How many lies are too many lies?”

  1. samjandwich January 15, 2021 at 6:49 pm #

    Oh no Sheep got me thinking… this is a vexing issue, but for my part I always think we should try to entertain the proposition that people who spread misinformation do so overwhelmingly because they truly, genuinely believe in it.

    Yes there is often an element of ulterior motive – ie they see it as an opportunity to push back against their ideological opponents, or even as a form of rebellion not unlike what James Dean was once (probably still is) lauded for. In the case of politicians there is also the incentive of the power and feeling of exaltation they get from tapping into the sympathies of a cohort of voters.

    And there are some exceptions of course… Trump, I think knowingly lies, but as his niece Mary L. Trump has said, he is someone who has embraced cheating as a way of life, and does so remorselessly and without conscience (or has he also repeated his lies so many times that he has come to believe them himself? who knows…). And yes I quite agree that the Murdoch media is an example of an amoral entity that deliberately lies in order to sell a product and make money.

    In general though, I have a lot of empathy for people who find solace in conspiracy theories and bias-confirming interpretations of information – and equally in intuitive or emotion-informed perceptions. You never know what people’s backgrounds are, and what mix of privilege and disenfranchisement they have experienced throughout their lives, until you get to know them. (and I’d recommend Louis Theroux’s retrospective currently running on ABC iview for a second opinion on this). The people who voted for Trump, and stormed the Capitol, Hilary’s “deplorables” if you like (actually I still rather like that description), when you see them attending rallies in their MAGA getup, lounging in the congressional chesterfields and making off with lecterns it really conveys a sense that these are people who feel they have been disempowered and excluded, probably for generations, and are just trying to get the piece of the action they think is their due.

    And while theirs is perhaps objectively a less legitimate feeling of disenfranchisement than the that of the #BLM movement – in that their oppression is less overt; they themselves have been largely responsible for oppressing people of colour, LGBTIQ people, or any other groups that make them uncomfortable; and I guess you could argue that they have to some extent brought their disenfranchisement on themselves through their own actions – I still don’t think this is reason to doubt the sincerity of their beliefs. Everyone needs a system of thought to help maintain a stable sense of self while navigating the outside world, and while some might say the MAGA crowd’s is a dysfunctional world view it does seem to work for them most of the time.

    As for free speech, the concept itself has become like a sacred cow, which nobody wants to harm, and so it’s very easy for people like our current A/PM (what was his name again I have forgotten) to rile against Twitter. Here what I think those who disagree with him and his ilk can do is to keep them accountable, call out hypocrisy (, learn to recognise and respond to bad faith (e.g. when right-wing people accuse left-wing people of engaging in hate speech and identity politics when it was clearly them who started it*-), and maintain focus on critical thinking, self-interrogation and rigorous examination of evidence, doing no harm by guarding against it.

    And always be empathetic, because unless I’m very much mistaken integrity and faith in humanity always win out in the end – though realise at the same time that there will always be some people you will lose… but that that’s part of embracing the wonderful diversity of humanity!


    • stewarthase January 16, 2021 at 10:06 am #

      I think it is true that people really believe what they say-most of the time. And even if they don’t they convince themselves that all is well. Such are the ways human deceive themselves.

      I’m not a psychoanalyst by philosophy pr practice but Jung did suggest, and I think he was right, that we all have a light and a dark side-see Milgram and others. I’m not so sure that, as a species, the human race is all that caring, empathic, loving, other focused, unless it suits them. It is part of our nature, our psyche to be self-interested. So, I do confess to being a Darwinist.


  2. Bob January 16, 2021 at 2:25 pm #

    Thanks, Stewart. I think you ask the crucial question about free speech:

    “How far are we willing to go? … Allowing the entitled to destroy our democracy …?”

    Confusion about the answer hinders our progress on issues such as climate change and inequality of wealth and income. Or so it seems to me.

    Your post deserves a larger reply than I’ll give it here. However, I did wish to offer two comments. In my mind, they have particular importance.

    The first is this. It seems to me that effective democracy depends on the electorate having access to relevant information. I would therefore claim that whatever free speech we allow citizens, we can reasonably demand honesty from our politicians.

    You and samjandwich both suggest that people often believe their own lies. I suspect that’s sometimes true. I also think the lies are at least sometimes a deliberate misrepresentations of the truth. An adversarial political system like ours rewards people for successful lying. It confers political advantage.

    Unfortunately mindreading isn’t a common human skill. That means that we can’t really know when a misrepresentation is genuinely believed. In turn, that implies that there must be specified boundaries to what is permitted of politicisns. And transgression must carry specified penalties.

    (And ultimately, we have to redesign our politics to be less adversarial. I don’t think that has any chance in the near future.)

    As a second comment I also wanted to comment on your confession that you are a Darwinist. So am I. In my own thinking, I assume that if something doesn’t make sense in terms of evolutionary history, it deserves a sceptical response. It seems to me that the field of evolutionary psychology has added a useful extra dimension to the field of psychology.

    However, let me explain why I am also a social Darwinist. It matters that for much of our species’ history we were a tribal species. I’m persuaded by the available evidence that during that time, cooperative tribes outcompeted non-cooperative tribes.

    For tribal members, collective survival was the best guarantee of individual survival.

    Then we discovered agriculture, and property, and hierarchy and bureaucracy. The result was a reinstatement of individual survival of the fittest.

    The evidence I’ve seen shows that our tribal instincts for collaboration does still exist, even if submerged. Rutger Bregman (“Humankind: a hopeful history”, Bloomsbury, London, 2020) agrees that, yes, we believe that we are primarily competitive individuals. In practice, however, we bahave differently. The collaboration emerges when it matters most.

    To revisit my first point … It is interesting to consider what form of political system would elicit our collaborative instincts.


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