Lies and the Power of Truth

Several common experiences rise to the surface when you read the literature of political dissidents during the middle of the 20th century. These individuals lived under the heel of the Soviet Union and experienced the full force of communism. Several of them saw things clearly that we, as a society, are having a hard time even admitting exist in ours. Their experiences are surprisingly uniform, leading to very similar reflections from people who were done with the lies and exercise of power.

One theme that keeps jumping out at me is the deliberate abuse of language to prop up a political point of view obviously at odds with reality. The most famous description of this comes from George Orwell’s novel, “1984”, in which the “Ministry of Truth” took truth and sent it down the “memory hole” to be incinerated, and published falsehoods. His image is so powerful, we now call this kind of behavior “Orwellian”. It stands for people in power asserting obvious falsehoods or censuring truth in order to promote their political point of view. It is more than “spin”. It is an exercise of power within the vehicles of information dissemination. Pundits can say whatever they want to on cable news about their candidate. That’s “spin”. But when individuals, documents, historical records, and political groups are erased from official organs of news and information, that’s Orwellian.

In her book, “The Origins of Totalitarianism” Hannah Arendt reflects on how those in power can not only get away with asserting obvious falsehoods, but get so many people to follow them, by saying it requires “infinite repetition” and just enough compliance by other social structures to make it plausible. The commoner, then, begins to think that what their eyes see is false and what the state tells them is true. She uses the proper term for this over and over – propaganda. It is not news, it is not information, it is propaganda.

In his Pulitzer Prize winning work, “A Captive Mind”, Polish playwright, Czeslaw Milosz tells the tales of four individuals (taken from his experiences but fictionalized to a degree) and shows how state enforced ideological conformity leads to mental and social breakdown. He tells of how artists and authors would gather, saying what they were supposed to say to each other, but each one knowing the others believed something completely different. Chasms are created in human souls who live with so much duplicity for too long.

In his short essay, “Live not by Lies”, Alexander Solzhenitsyn tells of a life lived with perpetual lies and the requirement that normal people believe them and repeat them. How does this oppression last so long? Once violence subsides, the falsehoods come out. He writes, “But violence quickly grows old. And it has lost confidence in itself, and in order to maintain a respectable face it summons falsehood as its ally—since violence lays its ponderous paw not every day and not on every shoulder. It demands from us only obedience to lies and daily participation in lies—all loyalty lies in that.”

Then, Vaclav Havel, the political dissident turned President of Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic, wrote profoundly about the ubiquity of lies and the power of truth in totalitarian (and what he labeled post-totalitarian) societies. The lies were so common and so obvious, that most people (he makes use of the image of a grocer hanging a communist party poster in his window because he is “supposed to”) simply go along with it, because to do otherwise was to threaten your livelihood and your children’s futures. But, he says, the most powerful antidote to the lies is to live the truth. He writes, “If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth. This is why it must be suppressed more severely than anything else” (“The Power of the Powerless”, Section VII).

If you feel like you cannot trust the sources you used to trust, or that those in power are lying to you and expect you to accept it as the truth, you are not alone. In fact, you see something important. You see through the smoke and have a chance to hold onto the light.

If you feel like you cannot trust the sources you used to trust, or that those in power are lying to you and expect you to accept it as the truth, you are not alone.

2 thoughts on “Lies and the Power of Truth

Add yours

  1. You are a thorough and wise man! I have been privileged to be taught by you (years ago) and continue to enjoy thinking along your path!


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