An Emeritus Prof of Political Science delivered this lecture delivered as the Billy Dudley Lecture, 2022 and another Professor of Political Science sent it to Intervention. It has to be published unedited, notwithstanding that it is slightly over 17,000 words. The journey begins with the first installment.
The author is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science, University of Ibadan; President, Nigerian Political Science Association (1987-1989); Director of Studies, Centre for Democratic Studies, Abuja (1990-1995); Dean, Faculty of the Social Sciences, University of Ibadan (1997-1999); Member, National Political Reform Conference (2005); Dean, Faculty of Social and Management Sciences, Bowen University, (2015-2019); Provost, College of Social and Management Sciences, Bowen University, (2019-2020).
By John A. A. Ayoade, (mni),
Lies are ubiquitous and prevalent in human society. It is so real in Nigeria that the Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka described Nigeria as the Republic of Liars (Wole Soyinka 2015). However, scholars did not pay attention to lies until earnest research into lies and deception began in the 1980s. Before then, there were only studies: Charles Darwin’s description of his child at two years and the study by Charles Hartshorne in 1928. Yet, according to Carol Barkes, “… the average person gets lied to two hundred times a day” (Amanda Hill 2020) while “the average person lies 1.65 times a day” which sounds like an understatement (Manish Dubey 2020). Some studies say that Americans lie at the average 11 times per week. This is in contrast to Donald Trump, who, according to Washington Post, logged 20,055 falsehoods in 1207 days at an average of fifteen lies per day. The average politician, starting at age eighteen which is the age of electoral maturity in most democracies, would have lied 33,747.45 times at the daily average of 1.65 times by age seventy. At 30,000 false and misleading claims attributed to Donald Trump in his four-year term by Washington Post, he told 88.9% the number of lies the average citizen would tell in fifty three years. However, numbers have nothing to do with the enormity or toxicity of a lie. Lies vary widely in impact and morality (Melenovsky 2018 and Kroeger 2018). Lies could be benign, malignant or just situational. As Kroeger (2021) asserted, in a different context, even a fact taken out of context can be as treacherous as lies. Lies vary in type, weight and hierarchy. It is important to enter the caveat here that it is not only politicians who lie. In fact politicians lie because their constituencies are prone to accept lies. In a way, therefore, some proportion of their constituencies are passive liars. It is no wonder then that Seager asserted that “We all lie and those who say they don’t are probably the biggest liars of all” (Kroeger 2018). This leads some people to assert that lie is instinctual or that “It is human to lie” (Kroeger 2018). However the inter-personal lies of the average citizen can be described as private lies. Even when such lies are told in public, they still have a small catchment area. Their impact and coverage may however increase as and according to how public the public figure and the subject matter are. Private lies are the subject of Wole Soyinka’s Interventions (Soyinka 2015). They do not compare in scope and effect with, for example, such pronouncement by President Jonathan of Nigeria that “stealing isn’t corruption” (“Ayoade 2017) nor can it compare with President Buhari’s pathetic silence tantamount to saying “banditry isn’t terrorism”. Lies can be told by speech, action, inaction, expressive conduct and/or silence. Senator Adamu Bulkachuwa, a member of the Buhari government, said “We gave them the name bandit probably to just soft pedal because terrorism in the international arena is regarded as the most heinous crime that any group of people can engage in” (www.channelstv.com). Just consider the consequence of the fact that Abraham Lincoln reneged on his campaign promise to preserve slavery in the American South (Michael Holtzman 2016). We are not concerned with private lies of limited scope and impact in this paper. Our focus is the mass and massive political lies of politicians. Such lies tend to set the standard for the less visible interpersonal lies on the logic that if governments can lie, why not ordinary citizens? Paradoxically, the big lies by politicians are immune to litigation. While the inter-personal lies of limited scope and impact fall within the radar of law. The pervasiveness of lies has resulted in describing contemporary politics as the “post-truth”, era. This is a term which the Oxford Dictionaries selected as the “2016 Word of the Year” but which Timothy Snyder saw as prelude to fascism (Lee McIntyre theconversation.com/lies-damn-lies-and-post-truth). The essence of post-truth is domination, a point at which the politician sees lieing as a prerogative. McIntyre defines it as the “political subordination of reality” (wbur.org/onpoint/2020/02/27/part-iv-post-truth).
Just as lies are of different grades so are liar politicians. Interestingly, savvy liar politicians, more often than not, record spectacular electoral success because honesty is not often rewarded. Benjamin Netanyahu who is described as an ‘unbridled liar’ is a four-term Prime Minister of Israel (Ravit Hecht). Boris Johnson, a near addictive liar who even got fired as a journalist for fake reporting, later went ahead to lie to secure Brexit (Maximilian Steinbis 2019) and had a landslide electoral victory thereafter. Robert Kennedy spoke to the point when he argued that President Lyndon B Johnson of the United States “even lies when he doesn’t have to lie” thus getting the American public to politely characterize his administration as a “credibility gap” (Benjamin Ginsberg ). Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were the two candidates at the 2016 Presidential election in the United States. The campaign statements of Hillary Clinton were said to be accurate 70% of the time while those of Donald Trump were said to be false 70% of the time (Stephan Lewandowski). Yet the Americans preferred Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton as President and he went ahead to become “…the most successful project of political lying in a modern democracy” (Simon Kuper 2020). Granted that it was not the veracity of the campaign statements alone that decided the vote, but it showed clearly that truth was not the priority in the election. In fact, George Edwards says that Donald Trump “tells more untruth than any previous President” (Jeremy Adam Smith 2017) while Larry Tye sees him as the Joe McCarthy of the 21st Century (Larry Tye ) because, according to Robert Erikson, Trump “makes up the truth that he wants to be true” (Libby Cathey 2021). It is no wonder then that fact checkers concluded that Trump “is the most mendacious White House occupant ever” (Jane C Timm 2020). Of the more than thirty thousand false or misleading claims credited to Trump during his term, “64% of all his statements were totally false” (Washington Post). This contrasts with the excellent story of George Washington, the first President of the United States, who was reputed not to have lied (Michael Lewis 2021). It also contrasts with Jimmy Carter who refused to use the power of lies to survive in office as President (Kent Kroeger 2018). Politicians and their handlers resort to second order lies or meta-lies by lying about lies using euphemisms. For example, Kellyanne Conway on January 22, 2017 defended Sean Spicer’s “provable falsehood” of unprecedented attendance figure at Trump’s inauguration by calling it ‘alternative facts’ (Wikipedia). When she was informed that ‘alternative facts’ amount to a lie, she retracted by substituting ‘additional facts and alternative information’ (Wikipedia). Alternatively, at other times, politicians play on words like Stephanie Gresham, Donald Trump’s White House Press Secretary, who asserted that Trump does not lie but “communicate … in a way that some people, especially the media, aren’t necessarily comfortable with” (Philip Seargeant). This means, that, to her, “… a lie only becomes a lie if someone we dislike is the liar” (Bradley R. Gritz 2019). Politicians also spin a fabricated tale instead of accepting a mistake. When Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, who is said to have attained a “stunning level of perfection” in lying (Ravit Hecht) addressed Boris Johnson as Boris Yeltsin, he claimed to have done so to test the attentiveness of the journalists but later edited out the original error (Philip Seargeant). It is also not uncommon for Nigerian politicians to claim that they were misquoted or quoted out of context even when they were caught on tape. On the other hand, the American media, in similar circumstances, described Joe Biden, the American President’s statement as “mischaracterizations of the truth” (ibid) just as the British media described the lies of Boris Johnson who is reputed as a liar as ‘gaffes’ (ibid) thus almost legitimizing mendacity for politicians. If the most electorally successful politicians are known to be liars, then truth is at a discount in politics. Lies are therefore not just perennials of politics (Robinson, 2018) but a defining characteristic of democracy (Islam Mohammed 2018). Hannah Arendt even went as far as saying that politics and truth do not often mix as truthfulness is not a political virtue (Hannah Arendt 1963). On the contrary, Sissela Bok, an ethicist, considers political lies as ‘the most dangerous body of all deceit’ (David De Casse).
It is no surprise that some countries are waking up to the dangers of political lies. The mass media which is the most culpable propagator of lies is paradoxically also in the forefront of checking facts and keeping a record of the lies of the prominent politicians in the United States. The lies are tallied and publicized as lies. This helps the electorate to know their leaders better and to determine their worth for political office. Although no scientific study of the deterrence effect of the fact-check has been carried out, there is little doubt that fact-checks send cautionary notes to political liars. Great Britain, under John Major as Prime Minister, established the Seven Principles of Public Life known as the Nolan Principles in 1995. The Principles are (1) Selflessness, (2) Integrity, (3) Objectivity, (4) Accountability, (5) Openness, (6) Honesty, (7) Leadership. The British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson was queried on his relationship with an American lady on the basis of the above Principles of Public Life. Tony Blair who succeeded John Major enacted the Ministerial Code in 1997. The Code requires Ministers to “behave in a way that upholds the highest standards of propriety”. Among other things, a Minister is forbidden from misleading parliament. In a similar manner, the Council of Europe passed the Twelve Principles of Good Governance in 2008. The Principles include among others Responsiveness, Openness and Transparency, Ethical Conduct, and Accountability. The purport of the Principles of Good Governance is to require all public officers to “act in the public interest at all times”. Most Australians believe that their representatives are dishonest, unaccountable and corrupt. Consequently, both South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) passed laws making truth mandatory in political advertising. The Australian Prime Minister also went ahead to propose a Public integrity Commission in 2018. People in different parts of the world therefore see lies as a present and pressing danger in politics. It is therefore the purpose of this paper to examine Plato’s Noble Lie which politicians cite as justification for lying. The paper is divided into five parts. The first part defines lies to set the basis for the paper. The second part discusses Plato’s proposition and the various rebuttals. The next part examines the assertion that politics is congenitally lie-friendly. The fourth part analyzed the strategic application of lies in political governance by three Nigerian Heads of State. The fifth part presents the Conclusion and Recommendations.
From the above, it is clear that lying is real and politicians compound lying by deliberate semantic obfuscation, outright denial, or buck-passing. Fortunately, concealment does not convert a lie to truth. It rather steps it up to a meta-lie and thus creates an analytical problem as the lie becomes more opaque. The reality is that the denial is often an unsuccessful escape route which is proof positive that the liar knows that he lies and that lying is culpable. A meta-lie is therefore the attempted repudiation of a lie and an unconscious confession by a liar. There is therefore a need for the clarification, definition, and unbundling of a lie by identifying its characteristics, properties, and conditions. The analysis of lies is also complicated by the fact that there are several variants of lies which ipso facto vary in gravity but equally at variance with the truth. Even then, it is important to enter the caveat that the opposite of a lie is not necessarily the truth because even truth can be used to lie as in paltering which is in the form of employing truth in the service of lies. As the saying goes, statistics don’t lie but it can be deployed to lie as in the case of quoting self-relevant selectively correct or actual figures with the intention to deceive. This succeeds because of the general low level of the statistical literacy of the general public (Brianna Steinhilber). Mark Twain, in 1906, attributed the phrase “lies, damn lies and statistics” to the British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli (Wikipedia) as three forms of lies. Alan Moore argues the opposite that artists also use lies to tell the truth. This however raises an ethical puzzle as to the admissibility of a lie in the service of truth.
St Augustine defines a lie as the concealment of reality in the heart of the speaker because the liar says the opposite of what he believes in his heart with the purpose to deceive (Andrew Higgings 2021). The truthfulness of a statement is dependent on whether there is a conscious intention to mislead. There are at least three ingredients to a lie. The first is that the liar knows the truth but decides to tell the opposite. A lie is therefore premeditated. The liar opts to lie because he calculated that the truth cannot deliver the expected reward to him/her in that particular case. This position is exemplified by the tendentious pragmatism of Adolf Hitler when he concluded that “It is not truth that matters but victory”. This situation results in the second ingredient of a lie that the liar is self-centric because he purposes in his heart to benefit from the lie. Femi Fani-Kayode, once boasted that he would rather die than cross over to the All Peoples Congress (APC). He later crossed over alive and justified his action by saying that “There is no point having principles without power”. This seems to confirm Robert S Strauss when he said “If you’re in politics, you’re a whore anyhow…” (Robert S. Strauss 1978 Lies are therefore political tools of manipulation and domination. A lie is a selfish act to the extent that the liar does not want to be lied to as that is an act dis-empowerment. A liar does to people what he does not want people to do to him/her. It is an asymmetric behaviour. This is aptly captured by the Yoruba proverb that the murderer does not want a sword to be brought near his head. Lies create unequal power relations by excluding reciprocity or mutuality in social relations. A lie is therefore a zero-sum strategy symptomatic of a grave information disorder that creates discordant social values, asymmetrical social relationships and an uncommon good for the liar. The potency of lies as a pollutant of social relations was adequately captured by late Governor Deshi Gomwalk of Benue-Plateau State of Nigeria when he said in the early 1970s that “Whoever can lie to you about other people, can lie to the other people about you”. The liar is eternally unreliable and unstable. His friends and positions vary as the wind vane. The third ingredient of a lie is that it is purposive and intentional. It is the deliberate self-twist of the heart of the liar for pleasure or self-gratification. It is a goal-driven mental construct for self-reward. The problem is how to successfully detect the construct in the liar’s heart. The victim of a lie is not necessarily or absolutely innocent in the transaction for while the speaker knows that he/she is lying, the victim may be ignorant or innocent of the truth. Where and when the people lose the ability to detect lies, demagogues have a free day which was a situation that Max Horkheimmer identified as a contributory factor to German Nazism (Ellis Jones 2015). In such circumstances, the victim is a vicarious accomplice. The Yoruba of South-western Nigeria, in like circumstances, believe that whoever does not appreciate goodwill may also be incapable of appreciating ill-will. At another level, the victim may know the lie and align with it because it agrees with his/her own feelings and disposition (The Guardian Opinion 2017). Machiavelli argued that those who deceive “will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived” (David Briceno 2019). Machiavelli’s pessimistic certitude was confirmed by Andrew Higgins (2021) when he observed that “readiness, even enthusiasm, to be deceived has become a driving force in politics around the world”. In this case, there is a probable commonality of interest between those who deceive and those that are deceived. For example, where a political community perceives itself as suffering at the hands of the rulers, pronouncements by the opposition will motivate the victims or minority, as it were, to see the liar as championing its interests (Oliver Hahl, et. al 2018). As the saying goes, we all eat lies when our hearts are hungry. A dire situation creates an affinity or even a bond of unity between the liar and some critical percentage of the liar’s audience. The predisposition of an audience to a lie can result from subjective factors like emotions, parochial loyalty, ideological congruence or individual fixation (Brianna Steinhilber). This is a confirmation bias which blunts the hearer’s sensitivity to the lie and gets him/her to agree with it. When the lie agrees with the position held by the audience, the lie ceases to be treated as a lie because, if the roles were reversed, the hearer too will most likely lie. This is why DaShanne Stokes affirms that “Lies sound like facts to those who’ve been conditioned to misrecognize the truth” (quoteslife.com/quote/Lies-sound-like-facts-to-those-who-167367). In fact, George Kennan, Counsellor at the U S Embassy in Stalin’s Moscow wrote in 1944 that no matter how untrue something might be, “for the people who believe it, it becomes true. It attains validity, and all the powers of truth” (Andrew Higgins 2021). An ideological congruence between a liar and his audience makes a lie acceptable to the audience. Whenever there is such a compatibility of views between the liar and his audience, the audience enjoys the lie and feels at home with it because, in the circumstance, the lie does not lie. This is not to say, however, that agreement with a lie makes a lie true. A lie is a lie even in the darkest of the night. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to persuade those who are predisposed to accept a lie against their views because they have either a personal, ethnic or ideological stake in the lie. People agree more easily with evidence that support what they want to believe than evidence that does not (Daniel Effron and Kathy Brewis 2018). Feelings are by convenience prioritized over evidence. People who do that are, therefore, selfish accomplices of the liar. In fact, they are collateral liars and they constitute the main prop of the economy of lies because a lie can hardly survive without them. Lies need an enabling environment to succeed. Those who are predisposed to accept a lie therefore provide a soft landing and the enabling environment for the lie. On the other hand, when the victim knows the truth and identifies that the speaker has lied, the variance clarifies the difference between the truth and the lie particularly because the person that is lied to is hurt or may be hurt, if unattended to. The three possible scenarios identified above are (1) audience ignorance, (2) speaker-audience sameness of views, and (3) speaker-audience variance of views. All the three are in the domain of inter-personal relations which is important because the individual is the behavioural unit of political analysis and the ingredient that adds up to the collectivity which is the ultimate in assessing the impact of lies on a country.
The Guardian added a new dimension to the definition of a lie by identifying two types of political lies, namely (1) lies that mislead and (2) lies that intimidate (The Guardian 2017). The dichotomy resolves into one when considered under the purposive and intentional property or characteristics of a lie. The lie which just misleads, more or less, amounts to a soft lie because, on the surface, it is non-kinetic. However, in reality, it does violence to the speaker, the immediate recipient and the system. It does violence to the speaker because he knows that he is lying and he therefore makes a deliberate effort to change reality or stretch the truth. The more a person lies, the easier and bigger it becomes. Neuroscience proves that, over time, the brain of the liar gets configured to dishonesty through mental conditioning. The brain thus enters a “slippery slope” through “reduced amygdala sensitivity to dishonesty” (Neil Garrett 2016). Just as a lie desensitizes the brain of the liar to the guilt of dishonesty (Brianna Steinhilber), so also does it immunize the public to falsehood and make propaganda acceptable. Fyodor Dostoevsky, the 19th century Russian novelist, therefore warned that “The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him and so loses all respect for himself and for others”. Brazen and frequent lies are capable of normalizing lies as political tactic (Bradley Gritz 2019) and acceptable political gamesmanship. Since deception is almost invariably about indefensible behaviour (Lionel Cliffe, et al 2000), it therefore also does violence to the system by replacing facts with self-serving feelings. Lies manipulate situations and people’s thoughts.
On the other hand, lies that intimidate are kinetic because they are weapons of coercion and compellence which reduce the freedom of the deceived. In fact, force is carefully adumbrated in all lies to change the position previously held by the audience. All deception is launched by duress. Ultimately, therefore, the parallels of deception and intimidation merge in compellence.
Justin Ling (2019) provides a more complex definition of lies. He argues that “For a lie to be a lie, you need to believe that the liar is lying with intent”. This definition strangely puts the onus of proof on the audience or recipient. In a sense, this further victimizes the victim. It is a wrong assignment of responsibility to expect the victim to see the construction in the liar’s mind. It is not in all cases that the victim can spot a lie. For example, when a government official reels out a string of official statistics to which the general public has little or no access, it is unfair to lay the onus of proof on the public. To do so exposes the public to double jeopardy. Secondly, some lies have a long gestation period to which only the speaker is privy. For example, Abraham Lincoln pledged, in his campaign, that he will not tamper with slavery in the American South if he got elected but the abolition of slavery turned out to be the most significant programme of his Presidency. There was no way the public could have discerned a secret carefully guarded in his heart until he started implementing it. There is therefore a difference between a lie of fact and a lie of plan. Even then a lie of plan could sometimes be explained away by changed circumstances and new facts which can still be tools in the hands of a liar. The fall in the price of crude oil in the international market could be used to explain why certain projects which were promised during the campaign were not implemented. This is common political practice in Nigeria. It is more of an excuse for political incompetence. In such circumstances, George Washington is right in saying that “It is better to offer no excuse than a bad one”. A good leader must anticipate eventualities and have contingency plans. That is the most critical part of a leader’s job. As the saying goes, anybody can steer the ship when the sea is calm. Kent Kroeger (2018), on the other hand, squarely puts the responsibility of a lie on the liar who should know that he is lying. Self-awareness is a critical ingredient of a lie because a lie under ignorance ceases to be a lie. A lie originates nowhere else but in the liar’s heart. For the purpose of this paper, a political lie is a lie purposely constructed in the politician’s heart to deceive the public with a view to gaining and/or maintaining political power. By its nature, it is the opposite of what the liar believes in his heart and it is aimed at convincing “someone that falsehood is true” (Lee McIntyre). Put succinctly, a political lie is an intentional concealment and/or distortion to deceive people into political agreement. It is persuasion under false pretence. For example, towards the end of November 2021, the Federal Government of Nigeria announced that it will remove fuel subsidy. As a palliative, it then promised to pay forty million poor people five thousand Naira (N5000) each. For its implementation, the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Sadiya Farouk, is quoted to have said “We are only sharing money to the poorest Nigerians in the North because we do not have poor people in Southern Nigeria, they have people outside the country that is taking care of them, so we are not going to South Nigeria”. This is a lie to justify giving the palliative to only Northerners. The Minister knows or should know that there are poor people in the South and that the removal of fuel subsidy will also adversely affect Southerners. This example proves the point that lies do not only have negative implications for a System but also vary in their damaging effect. While it may be true that, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, there are more poor people in the North than in the South, it is infantile to say there are no poor people in Southern Nigeria. This is again a variant of the Lugardian argument about the proverbial “Southern lady of means”. This Minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, perhaps inadvertently, feels comfortable to act as if she were a Minister of Northern Nigeria. A good number of Nigerians believe that the planned subsidy removal and the complementary five thousand Naira palliative are ploys to harvest election campaign funds from the federal treasury (vangruardngr.com/2021/11/Nigerians-to-fg-replacing-n1.8trn-subsidy-with-n2.4trn-palliative-a-scam-unwise). Most Nigerian politicians lie but Nigerian politicians are known for ridiculous tales (Freda 16 2016). The above is, therefore, one such lie that can fatally damage the Nigerian polity through spurious logic of unity by division. Philosophers of different hues have at different times addressed the place of lies in the human society. It is to that which we now turn.