Why is it so hard to lie to yourself (even when we’re surrounded by lies)?

Self-deception requires a splitting of the personality, but that is not the case of lying in public

Mentirse a uno mismo
Bea Crespo

If someone states, in all earnestness, that they never lie, we can be sure that they are, indeed, lying – or not in their right mind. We lie as much as we consider necessary. It is nothing extraordinary, but today a lie goes beyond hiding the truth. It can be argued that this has always been the case; the notable difference is the search for a counter-reality in which the limits of truth and lie are blurred until it makes no sense to even ask what the truth is. In public life it is difficult to distinguish between true or false – an essential difference which we don’t care about much, except for its practical consequences. But that is not the only contradiction that the lie makes us face; the most surprising, and yet accepted and common, is lying to oneself.

Lying is saying something that is known or believed to be untrue in order to deceive someone else. Consequently, some capacity for meta-representation must be at play in order to presume what they will think and how they will react; liars must put themselves in the victims’ place to find a way to deceive them into accepting what they state as true; it is an intentional, dialogic act. Meanwhile, lying to oneself (in other words, self-deception) is not intentional nor is it directed at a third party; rather, in undesirable situations, it would seem like there is a psychic mechanism that activates itself to hide reality from us.

Lies are so polysemic and their use so multiform that self-deception is included in the “lie” genre; this is the most common conception. However, for self-deception to be possible, psychological elements outside the lie itself must intervene. One often has contradictory ideas and beliefs, but that is far from being self-deception. To be successful, lies, when they are not trivial, require a strategy that only the liar knows; that possibility does not seem obviously evident in the case of self-deception, as splitting oneself is – fortunately – not a common occurrence.

In The Royal Game, by Stefan Zweig, a character is arrested by the Gestapo and subjected to absolute isolation. To tolerate his imprisonment, he plays thousands of games of chess in his head. Sometimes he plays the white pieces and sometimes the black pieces, anticipating numerous subsequent moves with all their possible variants, because each of the “players” doesn’t know what the other one will do. To escape madness and split personality, he has to stop playing chess against himself.

Is it impossible to lie to yourself, then? Although it is not possible in the sense that would make it equivalent to intersubjective lying, self-deception does exist. Among other interpretations, the psychoanalytic one introduces a second actor within the subject. Just as the symptoms constitute the manifestation of repressed unconscious drives, the forms of delusion must elude the control of censorship so that the subject can believe something that opposes their conscious behaviors and ideas. Then, “the duality of the deceiver and the deceived, an essential condition of the lie,” as Sartre says, “is replaced by that of the id and the ego.” Without going into psychological interpretations, what is disturbing is the prevalence of the idea (completely alien to Freudian thought) that lying to oneself does not require a subject responsible for the lying – which allows, in certain situations, to turn self-deception into a kind of deus ex machina resource that intervenes to excuse us. For Freud, on the other hand, a person does not stop being responsible for their self-deception.

When it is not about insignificant matters, as in the case of an excessive self-esteem, self-deception feeds back and is based on the type of life we choose and the commitments we make in it, on how we form our beliefs, which largely depends on the value we confer to what is true or false. Those who lie to themselves have to dilute the truth as much as necessary in order to form another, parallel “truth.” This is not exclusive to self-deception; in politics it is even more visible – and alarming.

The politics of lies

Lies and politics are both within the field of the possible: the lie escapes the constraints of the real world, denying or falsifying it, to create another, unreal one; politics – no less imaginative – at best sticks to the facts and presents a (still) unreal world to transform the one that is real. Undoubtedly, this is the purpose of politics, and the formal similarity with lying does not exempt governments from complying with the principle of telling the truth. Even if there are exceptional circumstances in which it is necessary to hide it, the question is to what extent it is a legitimate resource, or if, on the contrary, it does not respond to real needs and is conveniently used to transmit so many lies that it is no longer possible to distinguish the actual truth.

Of the countless forms of lying in politics, few are as excessive as Donald Trump’s. In his four years as president, he made 30,573 false statements. Faced with such a deluge of fabrications, falsehoods and slanders, to know what Trump was willing to do, one had to stick to his lies, as only in them the “truth” of his discourse could be found. Bill Clinton was more creative. He claimed that he did not have sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, only “inappropriate” relations, and he was cleared of perjury. He did not deny receiving oral sex – he diverted the problem from unequivocally sexual facts to what a sexual relationship consisted of in an abstract sense, and since Clinton believed that fellatio was not considered as such, then he had not lied.

According to FiveThirtyEight, a publication that specializes in opinion polls, 26% of Democrats thought that Clinton’s relationship with an intern was unethical, while 82% of Democrats thought that Trump’s relation with a pornographic actress was immoral. It is not, therefore, a logical or moral matter. They are two ways of manipulating citizens in the democracy of opinions: one, so brutal that it stultifies those who believe their lies; the other, more subtle, in which the truth loses its meaning and depends solely on the interpretation that is made of it. Both are part of the growing trend to devalue or suppress the truth as an objective and universal reference, reducing it to an opinion, changeable according to interests and circumstances. Postmodern thought in its various formulations progressively imposes that truth is subjective and, as its derivative, that in political life it is not possible to know when a person is lying; one can only take into account the identity that has previously been attributed to each character that intervenes in it. In that tenor, is it still possible to say “the king is naked”?

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