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Lying Power, Humans Can't Always Handle The Truth

Lies and mistrust are spreading throughout society, destroying the relationships between people and states. How could it come this far? And what can be done about it?

Pinocchio puppet in Rome
Pinocchio puppet in Rome
Stefan Ulrich

MUNICH — At the beginning there was the lie. Well, nearly at the beginning. If you eat from the tree of knowledge you won't die, but rather become like God, so the snake said. Only God knows what would have happened if Eve hadn't believed the lie. But she bit, and man was driven out of the Garden of Eden, and the lie has been with us since.

The lie, and her elegant sister, ruse, had a shining career in mythology and history. It aided Jacob and thereby Isaac. It helped the Greeks win the battle of Troy with the lie of a wooden horse. Later on, various popes justified their claim to power with a forged certificate of a gifted Constantinople. Adolf Hitler claimed Poland had attacked Germany. And Walter Ulbricht never wanted to build a wall.

The victory march of democracy and freedom of the press, as well as the end of the Cold War, seemed as if it might force the lie out of our lives once more. But that was an illusion. The power of the lie in today's society is such that it threatens to destroy international relationships and open society in general.

The lie of George W. Bush that Saddam Hussein was in possession of weapons of mass destruction fundamentally damaged the West's credibility and leadership. The lies of Russian President Vladimir Putin as he turned toward Crimea and Ukraine destroyed any remaining trust with Europeans. Gloss-overs and appeasements during the financial and euro crises, as well as during the design of the model for globalization, are pushing otherwise normal citizens toward the political fringes, which are always forceful about laying claim to the truth.

Populists, conspiracy theorists and enraged citizens make use of these lies to cast universal suspicion on entire occupational groups. Companies are generally accused of being guilty of working for their own uncontrolled financial benefit. Politicians of the traditional parties are accused of being the bailiffs of capitalism or of the Americans, ready to betray the citizens of Europe. The traditional Western media are denounced as "lying media" to make their most basic coverage seem unfounded from the start.

Truth to the extremes

Within and between many European countries, a climate of suspicion reigns, these flames fanned by such extreme groups as PEGIDA in Germany and the National Front in France, or Vladimir Putin in person. The lies and the rising accusation of lying are destroying solidarity. They weaken democracy, undermine European unification and endanger the peace between East and West.

How did it come this far, and what can be done? Before we can get to the answer we have to provide some context for: the lie. It is not always evil, despite what philosophers Thomas Aquinas and Immanuel Kant believed. Lies can be of a compassionate nature, when, for example, a doctor informs a patient only piecemeal of his terminal illness. They can save relationships, by using polite but meaningless phrases in conversation which ease living together. Those at work or on an official state visit who politely wish a "good morning" on a bad day are better off doing so than saying what they really think.

Lies can save lives if they are aimed at preventing mass hysteria. Lies can be viewed as a forgivable sin because everyone expects to be lied to — for example during election time. And lies can even become truths. In 2008 Chancellor Angela Merkel and then Minister of Finance Peer Steinbrueck reassured the citizens that their saving deposits were safe. That was a lie when spoken. But because many believed it at the time, the confidence inspired made it become the truth.

So lies can be acceptable if they are meant to assure a peaceful society, protect us from catastrophes and prevent distress. They become reprehensible when they harm the ones who have been lied to. And they become dangerous when they have become the norm and fan the flames of universal insecurity. If everyone accuses everyone else of lying, a peaceful, stable society is hardly possible any longer.

But the trend seems to veer in this direction. Because the complicated world we live in, with its shifting borders, is unsettling and makes us suspicious; because competition entices us to deceive; because politicians are convinced that citizens are not able to handle the whole truth; because journalists pass off assumptions as facts; because the Internet allows any ridiculous nonsense to instantly reach a global audience, unfiltered; because gifted demagogues like Putin are bombarding us with lies for such a long time until we are unwilling to believe the truth.

Lying media

But the march into a paranoid, post-democratic, authoritarian society is not inevitable. It is incredibly difficult to restore trust, but it is possible.

The first step is to differentiate the lie from generally untruthful politics and the "lying media." Yes, politicians and journalists can be wrong, just like any other human being, and some may lie with bad intentions. But to tar each and every one with the same brush is nothing short of slander. And the authors of those lies are fully aware of that.

Secondly, the courage to accept the unvarnished truth has to become part of who we are. The current EU President Jean-Claude Juncker once said "if worse comes to worst, you have to lie." But another very famous politician, however, proved the opposite — Winston Churchill and his mercilessly honest blood, sweat and tears speech during World War II.

"Humans can be expected to be able to deal with the truth," author Ingeborg Bachmann admonished. This is a good guiding principle, especially for politicians and journalists.

Part of that truth — at least — is that Putin is waging war in Ukraine, that globalization has harmed many, that the burden of the financial crises is unjustly spread, and that Greece may be forced to leave the currency union. That last bit of truth was pronounced by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble. Carry on the good work!

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