We Live in an Age of Competitive Lying

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by Dmitry Orlov, Russia Insider:

Orlov is one of our favorite essayists on Russia and all sorts of other things. He moved to the US as a child, and lives in the Boston area.

He is one of the better-known thinkers The New Yorker has dubbed ‘The Dystopians’ in an excellent 2009 profile, along with James Howard Kunstler, another regular contributor to RI (archive). These theorists believe that modern society is headed for a jarring and painful crack-up.

He is best known for his 2011 book comparing Soviet and American collapse (he thinks America’s will be worse). He is a prolific author on a wide array of subjects, and you can see his work by searching him on Amazon.

He has a large following on the web, and on Patreon, and we urge you to support him there, as Russia Insider does.

His current project is organizing the production of affordable house boats for living on. He lives on a boat himself.

If you haven’t discovered his work yet, please take a look at his archive of articles on RI. They are a real treasure, full of invaluable insight into both the US and Russia and how they are related.

No one has ever claimed that it is upstanding, sportsmanlike behavior to tell lies. Outside of some very special occupations—spy, special agent, etc.—lying is almost always a manifestation of failure.

Even in its relatively innocuous forms, such as braggadocio and puffery, showboating and grandstanding, it is a poor substitute for having a favorable truth to tell. Then there are the various types of dissimulation, misdirection, concealment and omission; whether motivated by the wish to spare someone’s feelings or to avoid a scandal, the decision to lie is rarely a happy one.

Finally, there are those who produce and circulate false and misleading information. When society functions normally, such people are caught, sooner or later, their reputations are ruined, their careers are terminated and the damage they caused is repaired. In a normally functioning society, enough of its members have a solid grasp of facts, are able to reason logically, and have sufficient faith in journalistic and other professional ethics, in the impartiality of public officials, and in the scientific method, to allow them to believe that truth does exist and that they are capable of obtaining it.

But such normal, stolid, matter-of-fact forms of social behavior seem a bit boring, perhaps even fuddy-duddyish, and are unlikely to hold the attention of modern smartphone-addicted whipper-snappers. Wouldn’t it be a lot more popular, modern and fun if the manufacturing of lies for financial and political gain become an accepted form of public behavior?

What if lying become incentivized to the point where it turned into a national sport? Who needs journalistic and professional ethics when less then a third of Americans polled say that they trust the national media? Why should public officials remain impartial when everybody knows that the vast majority of politically engaged Americans have formed two camps that openly hate and want to subvert each other? And who needs the scientific method and other forms of objective inquiry based on empirical evidence when we can rely on rumors circulated on social media as the ultimate arbiter of truth—because of “the wisdom of crowds” or some such?

And here is the most provocative question of all: What if we are already living in such a world?

How would we know if that were the case? We certainly shouldn’t attempt to base our assessment on anything as unreliable as “known facts” or on our personal notions of what is true: if our world has indeed shifted into the mode of competitive lying, then there would be multiple sets of alternative facts floating about, all of them fake to one extent or another, and choosing one set over another could be regarded as a matter of personal prejudice.

Do you see the basic contradiction? The old methods of epistemological exploration would no longer apply to the new world of competitive lying. Therefore, we need to find a new method with which to ascertain whether the world we currently inhabit is the old one of indisputable truths, or the new one of competing lies.

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