…and the Left keep validating them as good-faith opponents
Here’s a Cliff’s Notes summary:
|All games have rules.|
|Society has rules and conventions as well; truth telling, for one.|
|It’s much easier to win a game if you cheat, or lie.|
|It’s possible to mistake cheating for ignorance, incompetence or ineptitude once or twice, but not when it’s obviously habitual and deliberate.|
|Nevertheless, supporters of political cheaters tolerate, or even encourage and model cheating because they think the lying and cheating only hurts their opponents, and not themselves or society as a whole.|
|Saying “you cheated” means that you implicitly assume your opponent still acknowledges the rules, since “cheat” means “deliberately broke the rules”.|
|Repeated cheating, such as lying, is clear evidence that your opponent doesn’t acknowledge the rules, and the game defined by the rules isn’t actually in play.|
|Assuming that the rules still matter means that you are still playing the game, but your opponent is playing a different one: either without rules or with rules you don’t know.|
|For example, facts and logic are powerless against an opponent who has abandoned the agreements about their use and power and simply asserts that facts are whatever they want them to be.|
|It’s hard then to understand how the Right can use lying, fact-denying and flouting norms and conventions—cheating—as its operational model, yet all the Left does is to say “No, that’s wrong, let me spend several hours explaining how you cheated this time”, and then keep playing.|
|The intelligent response to an habitual cheater is to refuse to play with them and exclude them from the game.|
|That’s difficult if “the game” is politics. It’s potentially impossible if “the game” is society.|
|It’s a big problem when “the game” is politics, and the winner gets to make the new rules.|
|It’s a huge problem if the rules that are constantly being broken aren’t arbitrary, political ones, but the fundamental rules underpinning society.|
|A working society is, by definition, based on cooperation. Cooperation relies on trust, and trust is only possible when people (mostly) tell the truth. You can’t trust an habitual liar and cheat who gives you false information and routinely reneges on promises and commitments.|
|That’s the huge problem. The Right are consistently, deliberately lying, cheating, denying facts, logic and responsibility, and in doing that attacking the glue that holds society together—cooperation, which comes from trust, which comes from truth.|
|This behaviour would be impossible if it were identified and highlighted by the fourth estate. But it’s not. Sometimes individual instances are identified, but the repeated pattern of behaviour is not, and lying is never called “lying”.|
|The Right are helped and enabled by a complicit media who are owned by ideologues indistinguishable from the politicians. At best they minimise or ignore the cheating. At worst they lie about it.|
|They Right aren’t just cheating at politics, they’re cheating at life, and the Left’s response has to change from “I can prove he mis-spoke for the seventy-seventh time on this topic” to “They’re not operating in good faith, and they’re not fit members of this society”.|
|Don’t engage each lie as though it is part of a good-faith discourse. Engage the liars. Call them out.|
|These cheaters’ ultimate goal is not just winning another election, their behaviour makes it plain that it’s to fundamentally change the rules—to destroy democracy, or damage it so badly that a fair election is never again possible. This is an existential challenge for our society.|
The Big Lie
Donald Trump didn’t invent The Big Lie, but he used it, and many smaller lies, with such frequency and enthusiasm that to many of us it appeared that the whole edifice of political discourse had been wrenched off its foundations and now lay half buried in the sand, like the Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes.
Spurred on by his obvious success, the practice has spread like wildfire among right-wingers and extremists around the world.
That is a huge problem, undoubtedly.
Even worse, though, is our response to the problem.
In our society the standard riposte to a lie is the truth, the remedy for illogic is logic, and when people are confronted with incontrovertible evidence of their errors or mistakes they acknowledge them.
Not any more.
The problem is that those responses don’t work, aren’t working, and haven’t worked for at least as long as Trump’s presidency. Yet we keep using them.
Sensible and rational people still repeatedly try to counter the Right’s torrent of lies and bilge with facts and reasoned argument, apparently oblivious to the obvious fact that neither truth nor logic are in the room. Then they’re increasingly dismayed when their opponents are not only not swayed by this, but instead are amused and mocking, and respond with even more bizarre, illogical lies.
The most mundane and widespread example of this is on social media, where right-wing trolls swarm on any serious topic in huge numbers making fantastical claims, insulting and abusing other users, and breaking all conventions of conversation, debate and community. As individuals they’re merely annoying, but as a group and an exemplar they’re very concerning indeed.
What’s going on?
One highly persuasive explanation for the apparent failure of facts, logic and rational argument is the well-understood trait of humans to base decisions on emotion instead of rational thought. There’s extensive literature and research on this, and I’ve written more extensively on it here and here.
However even that’s not the real basis for the Right’s torrents of lies, illogic and denial, and more importantly it doesn’t explain why the usual, socially accepted responses that were effective a decade ago are now suddenly completely ineffective.
If we move fractionally up the hierarchy from anonymous internet trolls to real politicians, a more consequential example is the regular use of what are known as “dead cats” by right-wing politicians: deliberately outrageous and provocative statements that are intended to shock and grab headlines, usually to derail debate, as a distraction from some other scandal, or simply to enrage and engage the left side of politics in a long and fruitless effort to counter or debunk the outrage.
These dead cats are usually false, but the amount of time and effort required by the Right to toss them into the public arena—mere minutes—is tiny compared to the amount of time and effort then expended by the Left to attempt to counter them, all the more fruitlessly when the Right clearly doesn’t care.
The most obvious and most dangerous examples are the unapologetic lying, corruption and abnegation of responsibility by right-wing leaders and their entire political parties, and their use of the power and mechanisms of democracy to deliberately erode and undermine those self-same structures they’re using and claim to be supporting. As the ancient Romans put it, quis custodiet ipsos custodes, or “Who guards the guardians?”
Still, in every case the Left responds to these lies, insults and outrages using the socially accepted processes and mechanisms of political debate and convention, and is apparently surprised and dismayed when they have little or no effect.
The first mistake that the Left keeps making is to generously attribute various apparent failures, mistakes, omissions and commissions to ignorance or ineptitude. It’s momentarily gratifying to be able to label an opponent as ignorant or incompetent, and much easier than looking for a pattern of behaviour or demonstrating intent rather than negligence. This mistake is perpetuated by the apparently sensible saw “Never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity.”
This makes perfect sense when applied to any single incident; where it fails is when an obvious pattern of “stupidity” clearly signposts intent, and hence malice.
This is also the excuse that the media always use for refusing to label a lie as a lie. “To prove it’s a lie,” they tell us sanctimoniously, “we have to prove intent, and nobody can know what was going in in their heads.” That’s a very plausible explanation for the first ten or twenty occurrences, but over time pretending that each lie is an isolated event rather than a glaringly obvious pattern of behaviour means that the media aren’t staying silent out of an abundance of ethics, they’re complicit.
For the Left, there’s no doubt they can ultimately see the pattern, but there’s still a reluctance to call it for what it is, to name the beast. Even then, a larger problem remains, because the larger mistake is to assume that, despite a clear pattern of bad behaviour, the Right is still “playing the game”.
Even today you will read outraged posts or articles “How can he lie like this”, or “He’ll have to stop lying now”, or “Here’s a video of him saying what he claims he didn’t”, or “These figures prove that he was wrong”, or “This letter proves that he knew months ago”, and on and on like this. Which is amazing, really, given that for years now the consistent evidence is that all of these facts and figures and logic and irrefutable arguments have absolutely no effect on the Right.
Lies are never acknowledged or admitted; logic is dismissed, ignored or mocked with further illogic; facts, no matter how obvious or easily verifiable, are disputed and denied; outrage is rejected or ignored, and amidst all of this blatant denial there are often accusations that it is the Left that is committing these acts. The Right, they will tell you, is unswervingly committed to truth, democracy and morality. The bare-faced effrontery is breathtaking, yet it continues unabated day after day, week after week, as do the predictable and completely ineffectual responses.
Of course they’re aided and abetted in this by large portions of the media, who either look the other way, or vigorously defend the lies with more lies of their own. I discussed this unhealthy symbiosis and the corrosive effect of the cycle of lies here, but for the sake of simplicity I’ll simply observe that those media organisations are owned by people whose right-wing affiliations make them indistinguishable from the parties of the Right. The combination of a cheating, lying political class and large sections of the Fourth Estate who actively support them creates a parallel universe of “alternative facts”, where we’re no longer tethered to a shared reality.
It feels as though we’ve inexplicably travelled through the Looking Glass, or that we’re not in Kansas any more. Which is true, and intended.
What’s really happening is simple. It’s neither new nor inexplicable, and it can be summed up very concisely:
THE RIGHT IS CHEATING
“Cheating” sounds like a childish and simplistic word to describe adult politics, but it’s the precise explanation of what’s going on.
The Right isn’t following the rules. They’re deliberately violating fundamental social principles, including facts, logic, truth-telling and good-faith.
The problem is that all of these principles aren’t immutable, they’re shared assumptions. They’re conventions that we agree so that society can work, however they’re also obeyed only by agreement and by convention.
If you don’t care about violating those assumptions then breaking the rules gives you a huge advantage. This is basic Game Theory, and it’s the strategy the Right have clearly chosen.
The biggest problem, though, is that the rules the Right are breaking aren’t polite rules of political conduct or debate, conventions on ministerial responsibility or electoral advertising. The rules they’re persistently breaking are fundamental social compacts that are vital for a viable society, and certainly vital for democracy.
Lying is a social construct
Humans are social animals. Our success as a species relies, first and foremost, on our intelligence, but closely behind that comes our ability to work in groups, as a society. We’ve being doing it for fifty million years, and it’s a laughable idea that any individual human could accomplish much at all living as a hermit and fending for themselves. Without society, we are nothing.
To make a society work there are certain fundamental social behaviours and values that are essential, and trust is one of the most important. Without trust, any group endeavour is doomed. If people persistently lie to each other then nothing can be relied on, promises and commitments become meaningless, and cooperation becomes impossible.
“When the tiger charges, I’ll distract it for you … … hahaha I lied.” “No cuts to the ABC … … hahaha I lied.”
Without cooperation society fragments and we regress to animal status.
That’s not to say that nobody lies, far from it, but clearly there has to be a general observance of truth-telling, of keeping promises and commitments, and a recognition of their value and importance as a fundamental social glue. This isn’t the place for a taxonomy of lying, but I’m not talking here about the harmless “I’m well, thanks” lie when you’re feeling sick, I’m talking about the zero-sum lies that can only advantage the liar by disadvantaging the lied-to. “I guarantee you’ll be better off if you vote for me.” “I promise I’ll never reveal our secret conversation about submarines.”
Despite the overwhelming advantages of living in a society, there’s still no guarantee that certain individuals might simply choose not to keep those compacts and respect the constraints.
In other words, cheat.
Cheating immediately conveys a huge advantage to the cheater, who is freed from all the constraints that the ethical, socially responsible player is obeying. In a zero-sum game the cheater is almost certain to win and so, of necessity, the rule-follower loses.
Self-evidently, no single lie, no matter how big, will bring down society. Persistent and deliberate lying—cheating—on the other hand is both corrosive to trust and also possibly destructive to social structures we value greatly, such as democracy.
If you only care about winning and you don’t care about damaging society while you do it then it makes perfect sense to adopt cheating as a policy. It’s also a good strategy if you can rely on the majority of people to follow the rules, because it gives you a sort of herd immunity. That way your cheating won’t destroy everyone’s trust, and the small proportion of cheaters will reap the benefits. This works even better if other cheaters agree to tell everyone, say in newspapers and media, that you’re not cheating.
That is precisely the Right’s strategy, and the Left, by repeatedly engaging with right-wing cheaters as though they’re honest, good-faith, genuine players, is effectively trustwashing them, as well as guaranteeing that they’ll win.
Note that this is a bit subtle. Accusing the Right of lying, or illogic, or refusing responsibility, as political acts is not the same as accusing them of deliberately, knowingly and maliciously breaking basic social agreements.
It’s precisely that distinction that allow the Right to maintain the support of their base even in the light of what is apparently unacceptable anti-social behaviour—because the base believes that the lying and cheating is constrained only to their opponents. That is, that they’re fundamentally good-faith individuals who are using cheating in a limited context. Their supporters might have a completely different response if they thought or realised that their supposed representatives were lying to them as well.
To put it another way—breaking a campaign promise is something that happens with such tedious regularity that it’s barely worth a mention in politics. Nevertheless, it’s still a lie if the politicians never intended keeping the promise. However it’s not treated with the same seriousness as someone who lies about everything, who lies indiscriminately, who lies as a deliberate strategy and who lies with the sole objective of furthering their own ends and gaining power.
In an individual outside of politics those behaviours are diagnostic of sociopathy, psychopathy or narcissism, and the individual is shunned whenever that behaviour is recognised. When a group adopts those tactics it’s different, and far more serious.
Confronting a politician with evidence of a broken promise or a wrong fact with the expectation that they will acknowledge their error is, in itself, still playing by the more basic social rules, because it’s done with the expectation that, in good-faith, they’ll honour the fundamental social compacts. It implicitly validates them as acceptable, good-faith social actors, because it assumes they’ll accept their social responsibility and take the opportunity to play by the rules.
It’s a total waste of time, however, if in fact they have no intention of honouring those compacts and continue to cheat and lie.
That is, they lied deliberately to begin with, and when confronted with the lie, simply lie deliberately again.
Does that behaviour sound unpleasantly familiar?
Why is it tolerated?
Now at this point it’s fair to ask, if you haven’t already, why such obviously—and literally—anti-social behaviour is tolerated by the media and the public, or why it’s even encouraged and imitated by some, such as trolls and extremists or even supporters.
The public aside, it’s obvious that such behaviour can’t stand alone. It requires the complicity and collaboration of the fourth estate—the media. If the press relentlessly calls out each lie, refuses to leave behind broken promises and commitments, diarises every missed deadline and milestone, and highlights corruption and bad government then no amount of lying will succeed when the public is reliably and repeatedly shown it.
On the other hand if the media lie as well, then although people may have an inherent wariness about what politicians say and do they have to place their trust somewhere, and since they rely on the media to inform them of what’s happening outside their own community they generally believe the lies the press tell them—”your government is doing a good job and your leaders are excellent people who cook curries on Saturday night”.
Even if some people suspect that politicians are cheating, they may not care, for a couple of reasons. The first, as I’ve already mentioned, is that right-wing supporters clearly believe that lying and cheating by their representatives in support of their political ends is perfectly acceptable. That is, they’re taking it on faith that those same politicians wouldn’t lie to them, or cheat them. This explains not just the acceptance of wholesale lying, but its apparently enthusiastic embrace by right-wing supporters. They’re “owning the libs”, as they put it. Note that this support implicitly—and wrongly—assumes that the lying and cheating is somehow circumscribed, and doesn’t actually represent a basic, existential strategy.
The second reason, I’d suggest, is that for at least some right-wing supporters who have felt relatively powerless and just pawns in the games of the rich and powerful, deliberate and malicious rule-breaking—cheating, lying—is an empowering and liberating act. It may be small in the grand scheme of things, but it’s both symbolic and real, and it allows them to express their contempt for the systems they believe—or they’ve been told—have failed them, because a lot of the propaganda of the Right is about encouraging supporters to blame the Left and to disbelieve anything except the words coming out of their lying, cheating mouths.
That is the reality of right-wing cheating. The far Right have no respect for or concerns about the integrity of the society in which they operate because it’s either not the society they ultimately want, or its structure is irrelevant to them because their only strategy, ever, is to cheat. Either way, their only concern is winning, and from winning, gaining power.
One of the oldest ethical and philosophical questions is “Does the end justify the means?”
The answer to that is easy if your end is simply power. In fact, both the question and the answer are irrelevant if all you want is power, since ethics are also irrelevant and only winning matters—power at any price.
That appears to be the trap that the Left are caught in but cannot see: they’re assuming that the Right are playing by the rules; they’re assuming that bad-faith actors are acting in good-faith. It’s a fatal mistake.
No wonder the far Right find the Left’s outrage so amusing. They don’t care.
The far Right constantly remind the Left of the rules, and shout loudly all the time that the Left are breaking them—whether they’re breaking them or not—while all the time they’re breaking them at every opportunity, and laughing at the Left’s trusting gullibility. Whenever the Left accuse the far Right of cheating or lying they simply deny it, even when presented with incontrovertible proof, because not only do they not care, lying to their opponents is a knowing and deliberate tactic.
That is the Left’s true challenge.
The challenge is not to find the correct facts, or the best logic, or the most crushing rejoinder to the Right’s arguments, because it’s absolutely pointless playing a game against an opponent who persistently breaks the rules, who in fact isn’t playing the same game at all. Facts and logic are powerless against an opponent who has abandoned the agreements about their use and power and simply asserts that facts are whatever they want them to be.
In fact, trying to continue the game is worse than pointless if you’ve attached some agreed outcome or reward to a win, because continuing to abide by the rules when you know the other side is persistently cheating is just stupid.
If they lied when they agreed to the game, and they lied when they agreed to the rules, and they lied about breaking the rules, and then lied about lying, how can it make any sense to continue the game?
Bringing a Knife to a Gun Fight
If we were talking about a game of hide-and-seek, winning or losing wouldn’t matter much. When we’re talking about a democracy and control of the government, it’s different.
When the reward for winning is the power to control society and define the rules of the game, the problem becomes existential. The game is society, and democracy; it’s no longer a game inside the larger game, it’s everything, and while you can’t “leave” society, you can absolutely lose democracy.
If you’ve agreed a set of rules, and your opponent repeatedly breaks the rules, effectively renounces the rules but still claims it’s playing the game, then the game actually no longer exists. The rules exist, but don’t apply.
The simplest way to demonstrate that is to ask: how do we know who won? Because winning the game is something that’s defined by the rules, the rules your opponent no longer obeys.
Winning is now meaningless; if you win, your opponent could just refuse to accept the result, or more probably will declare they won in the face of any evidence to the contrary.
Does this sound unpleasantly familiar and real?
How should the Left respond to this challenge?
It’s like a version of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem: is it possible to preserve and defend any set of social agreements, using only those agreements, against someone who doesn’t honour them? More concretely, if your opponent fights dirty, can you beat them only fighting clean? What if they’ve bribed the umpire and own the press? What does a “clean” fight mean, then?
Suddenly we’re faced with the ends-justify-means argument again, only this time it’s the Left that’s faced with the question. Should the Left fight dirty, to “save” the clean game?
If the rules actually codify a society and system of government that you want, then if you knowingly break those rules you’re now willingly playing the same anarchic game as your opponents. In a way they’ve already won, because the game has been completely abandoned by both sides.
However it’s also clear that continuing to play by the rules against a bad-faith opponent whose strategy is cheating is an almost guaranteed loss.
Proof-by-existence that lying works
Using proof-by-existence we can see that, at least in the short-term, the strategy of right-wing cheats and liars is successful. An entire US Presidential term was occupied by the most egregious cheater and liar, and society was apparently powerless to stop him. In the space of a single term he nearly succeeded in destroying the basic machineries of democracy, and with a few strategic assassinations on January 6th might have succeeded, or at least engendered a violent uprising if not a civil war.
The current governing party in Australia has an undeniable record of scandal, corruption and lack of accountability, yet it survives by merely refusing to admit liability, acknowledge any lies, or agree to any logic or facts; but it constantly claims that it is committed to truth, democracy and in fact Christian values. It came to power thanks only to a concerted campaign of lies both by its leader and by a complicit fourth estate, and it’s entirely possible the same tactics will succeed again unless the Left changes its response.
In theory, in our society and democracy formal mechanisms exist to detect and sanction cheating and lying. Again, the proof-by-existence in both the USA and in Australia is that those mechanisms don’t always work.
Those mechanisms still rely on social agreements to operate, and they’re themselves vulnerable to cheating and lying. By the time the danger is obvious, the cheats and liars may have won and now control the system. From there they can either continue to cheat and lie and claim that everything is working correctly, or they can use their power and proceed to abolish the structures they don’t want and institute the society they desire, one in which power determines the rules and democracy no longer exists, or is replaced by a superficially plausible model that’s so thoroughly rigged that those in power will never lose it.
How to resolve the paradox? What then should the Left do?
The Left must refuse to assume good-faith
This is the Left’s only course. Firstly to recognise that the other side is cheating; not occasionally, or in error or ignorance, but as a knowing, deliberate tactic, and having recognised that, to stop playing the game as though they’re not. Secondly, to decide how to respond to a group whose obvious goals are not the preservation of existing society, democracy, or continuing observance of previously agreed rules and conventions.
That response is very simple. Simple to say, not so simple to do, but existentially necessary:
Refuse to engage with them on any basis but the fundamental question of their honesty.
Otherwise, as soon as you agree to debate a bad-faith actor on any other topic than their honesty, you’re implicitly validating that they’re good-faith actors. More, that the debate will be about that specific issue, not about their fundamental cheating. Under those circumstances, the liar has won, and won twice. They’ve successfully lied about their good-faith, and they’ll now lie about the issue.
The only meaningful debate is the one about their bad faith. If you’re forced to discuss anything else, just point out that anything they say simply cannot be trusted, because they’re deliberate, habitual liars. “Why should you believe anything they say now, when there’s so much evidence that they’ve lied deliberately, they’ve lied knowingly, and they’ll lie to you again. We can have this discussion, but what’s the point in us arguing with people who will promise you the moon, but then fail to deliver. We won’t promise you the moon, but we do promise to deliver.”
Why will this work? Because in the end, society is just the sum of its parts. If a large enough proportion of a family or community or society decide on something, that decision will hold. In the worst case it may lead to violence, and for a time it might be suppressed by violence, but ultimately the “will of the people” is the only deciding factor. Because we are social animals and because society is critical for our survival, in the end the fundamental rules of society are vital to us, and universally acknowledged.
All societies understand that cheats and liars are dangerous and unacceptable.
The solution to the problem, then, is not to embrace the anarchy the Right are using to destroy current structures and to destroy public trust, it’s not to start lying, it is simply to deny them the assumption that they’re good-faith actors. The complicit media can claim that they are, but in the end if the only debate they can report is about fundamental trustworthiness and honesty then no amount of spin will hide the truth.
The revulsion for cheats and liars is extremely strong in any society, because of the existential danger that they pose. No society will willingly accept or be led by a proven liar.
When faced with opponents whose clear intent and strategy is lying and cheating, the only rational and workable response then is to refuse to engage on any issue but honesty. It has to be said, and said loudly. No more polite, pointless and self-defeating “Here’s compelling evidence of another lie on this topic”. Say what’s really happening.
“These people are deliberate, serial liars and cheaters whose only goal is power; they’re a danger to society and not fit to be a part of the Australian polity.”
It’s a bold claim, and a big task, but society as a whole still acknowledges and understands the importance of those basic compacts and they’ll support efforts to defend and preserve them. That power is much greater than the power of a coterie of cheats.
[2021-08-14 Added sections on mistaking ignorance for cheating, and on public support for lying]
[2021-11-08 Edited generally and reworked the conclusion. An earlier version was published under the title “Someone Is Cheating”]