Seinfeldian truths play well only on TV
“Jerry, just remember. It’s not a lie… if you believe it….”
—George Costanza, Philosopher and Architect
As post-truth America edges toward the Costanzafication of its public institutions and body politic, we sit idly by at our own peril.
Rumors of the death of evidence are no longer rumors. Belief has replaced facts, which, as Costanza hypothesized, skews the truth … and the lies … thank you very much.
As a 2024 presidential campaign finds its footing, fact-checkers during debates run the risk of self-combustion. Plus, the need for solid evidence and facts has never been more critical.
Nebraskans will vote in two U.S. Senate races in 2024. School board races, especially contentious these days, are up for grabs everywhere. We wonder, too, if climate change will keep us ablaze or flooded or simply blown away. Or, perhaps most importantly, we are watching court cases that will in large part reveal whether we will insist on living by the democratic principles on which the nation and its institutions were founded or move toward the more perilous practice of authoritarianism.
We need the truth: whole and nothing but.
The task will be daunting because it’s more than the illiterati poisoning the well of truth.
Well-practiced liars do so with such precision and glibness that some observers are bold enough to consider lying an art form. I’ll not venture a guess as to the artistic nature of whole cloth fabrication.
Besides, contemporary lying is not a matter of polish but rather mathematics (see research below). The counting of thousands of lies from a former president in the Washington Post notwithstanding, lies of every stripe, often delivered through the exponential firehose that is social media have clobbered our trust in settled law, cultural benchmarks, objective truths and public institutions.
The range of lies is breathtaking, too. On a continuum we wink at fibbing and fudging on one end while on the other we risk becoming numbed — or worse, choose to believe — to pants-on-fire whoppers because we hear them over and over.
I’m not suggesting we have become a nation of liars. The research makes that fairly clear. One University of Oregon study indicated that “most people are honest.” Prolific liars remain few, a tick over 5%. Another batch of studies reveals for typically honest Abes and Abbeys, the going rate remains about two lies a day.
Unless Abe and Abbey were lying to researchers …
Nor does technology play as prominent a role as amateur behavior scientists — this space included — would like to guess. The Oregon study revealed small differences in rates of lying among social media, texting, face-to-face, phone and email, with the telephone, by comparison, being the device most likely to host some deceit.
Still, despite having numbers worth gold stars for all around honesty, we’ve dumped enough hooey into the public and political bloodstream that the infection is spreading.
The upshot is not simply a Big Lie, but a Costanza-like response to much of the public discourse: If it’s within my beliefs, then it must be true. If it’s outside my beliefs, then it must be false. All in the face of incontrovertible evidence.
Such “siloing” means leaders whom we’ve chosen to make laws and write policies are often without common ground on which to debate or compromise or reach consensus because belief has supplanted fact. The nonsensical phrase “alternative facts” is rightly and often ridiculed, yet it remains part of the game plan for many Americans.
We even struggle calling a lie a lie, relying instead on euphemism, diminishment and deflection. Even the New York Times, reputed as the nation’s newspaper of record, recently blinked in the face of lying. After GOP presidential candidate and regularly duplicitous Vivek Ramaswamy lied several times during the first debate of the primary season, the Times, in a piece profiling him, chose “Ramaswamy Shows a Penchant for Dispensing With the Facts” as its headline.
While perhaps in the same euphemistic neighborhood, “dispensing with the facts” is more than a few subway stops from “lying.” We may run out of synonyms for lies before the 2024 election is over, but the Times should know better than to soft-pedal a headline like this.
George Costanza was neither a philosopher nor an architect but a bumbling ne’er-do-well who made us laugh. That’s great for a situation comedy.
But belief supplanting facts is neither great nor funny for a public where the truth not only sets us free … it keeps us free.