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The nasty truth about the noble lie

Ali Hossaini
15 October 2003

For twenty years essayists have ventured to ask if George Orwell’s vision for Nineteen Eighty-four is coming true. The answers have been as varied as the writers and the features of Oceania, Orwell’s fictional nation, they’ve chosen to consider.

Take a piece on surveillance by cyber novelist William Gibson for the New York Times (June 2003). Cameras are now cheap, miniaturised and, courtesy of local government, ubiquitous. Constant surveillance fits the classic definition of ‘Big Brother’. Yet Gibson argues that the market has headed off dystopia. Cameras work both ways, as the Rodney King affair showed, and cheap electronics makes every citizen a watchdog.

I think Gibson is right about surveillance, but let’s not dismiss the case for 1984. Two-way TVs are a nasty thought (unless you’re a paid Nielsen family), but far more insidious forces were at work in Oceania’s media, particularly in its portrayal of war.

All is fair in war

There was a time when war meant an armed conflict between two nations. War was an existential threat, and called for extraordinary actions that range from killing enemies to killing the truth. Even politicians remind us that “truth is the first casualty of war”, harking back to Plato’s doctrine of the “noble lie”.

Noble lies run headlong into journalistic ethics, which are based on the opposite principle: that society works best when based on truth. How do we decide which of these principles is right? There’s no magic formula for ethics, so I would argue that the answer depends on your political preferences. There are no givens in life, but by unpacking some of these issues, we can define the proper role of journalists, particularly in times of war. Orwell’s famous novel is helpful here because war was a permanent condition of Oceania.

People suspend their habitual ethics during war. Mild-mannered liberals may kill, lie and follow absolute leaders when threatened. The question is: how far this should go? Plato despised democracy, and he expected leaders to weave noble lies for the greater good.

The contemporary political relevance of the idea of the ‘noble lie’ is explored in relation to the powerful cadre of neo-conservatives influenced by Leo Strauss (for whom Plato’s anti-democratic dictums are fundamental) by Danny Postel’s conversation with Shadia Drury, elsewhere in this edition of openDemocracy.

Citizens of democracies have no such expectation, because we are, presumably, the leaders, and only an informed citizenry can make good decisions.

As Des Freedman points out in “Witnessing Whose Truth?”, journalists have been willing to suspend their objectivity during times of war, essentially abandoning democratic values for a temporary aristocracy. Freedman notes that the ‘embedded’ reporters of the recent Gulf war are nothing new; they are simply the most obvious examples of a media business that operates in a larger context of obligations, values and financial relationships.

Winning hearts and minds

Democratic polities have been willing to suspend individual rights during war, and war has been defined as a situation where the nation is under arms. For the past 200 years, wars have had distinct beginnings, and democratic nations had little question that things would return to ‘normal’ when hostilities ceased. Wartime powers are temporary. What happens when a nation is in perpetual war?

Orwell gave a telling answer to this question. Big Brother, the Everyman of dictators, learned that security trumps rights. By creating a state of permanent insecurity and blaming it on shadowy enemies, Big Brother’s government changed the terms of public discourse. In a chilling inversion of American values, the people of Oceania decided it was better to live “unfree” than die.

20th century nations never had to endure Oceania’s fate because war is by nature public and self-limiting. They end, if only because propaganda wears thin and combatants run out of money. In contrast, Oceania’s leader guarded the definition of war by taking control of language. My argument is that the control of language – particularly on the concept of war – is the key to dictatorial power. From that perspective we can see some dangerous trends in the politics of my country, the United States.

Without objectivity there is no democracy

Many factors have contributed to decline of objective journalism over the past decades. Some of them are economic, caused by the self-censorship of journalists who don’t want to offend their corporate employers, but another trend has been the rise of relativism.

Truth (capital ‘T’) seems a bit old-fashioned these days. Politicians have always lied – as Joseph Goebbels said, the bigger the better – but generally there has been someone around, whether it’s the intelligentsia, the clergy or the political opposition, to call them on it. Every Nixon has his Woodward & Bernstein, eventually. Now the situation is different, and the reason stems from the current state of our intellectual culture, which shuns anything that sounds absolute. Facts are for the naïve.

David Loyn’s article “Witnessing the Truth” uses his experience as a BBC correspondent to argue against advocacy journalism, however well-intentioned. In contrast, Des Freedman, argues that the only antidote to journalistic bias is a rising market for alternative views. News outlets will take a critical stance if it enhances sales. The economic logic is sound, but philosophy might offer a more productive way of approaching the problem of bias.

The truth, relatively speaking

Two currents converged to create our current relativism. Postmodern philosophy has for decades made a concerted effort to eliminate the verities of life. For Jean-Francois Lyotard and his brethren the Truth is just another meta-narrative, with no privileged grip on things as they are. The other current, probably more powerful, derives from scientific progress. Today’s facts are tomorrow’s fiction. Under such conditions, it’s easy to believe that everything you know is wrong.

I think it’s a terrible mistake to apply these lessons to life, particularly politics. Like quantum physics, philosophy works beyond the range of perception. Arguments about the limits of knowledge may make sense, but the key word is limits. It is a mistake to import the lessons of philosophy into everyday life without careful consideration. Think of Samuel Johnson’s response to Bishop Berkeley’s arguments against the existence of matter. He kicked a rock and said, “Thus I refute you.” Funny, definitely; but hardly an end to the philosophical argument.

Reality may not be as it seems, but even sceptics have not denied the importance of truth in human relations. Julian Baggini explains why objectivity is a critical factor in communication. In “The Philosophy of Journalism”, he contrasts truth, which has a brittle absolutism, with the notion of ‘truthfulness’, which is the best effort of a journalist to overcome her individual perspective.

Aiming for truthfulness, Baggini says, enables journalists to separate the social function of truth from its intellectual traps. The grand question of truth has not been answered. It probably won’t be. But the ambiguity of reality only holds for the musings of philosophers. Outside the classroom, there are standards of truth, and they don’t require formal proof. Instead they require common assent; they are what any reasonable person of sound faculties could verify. Philosophy can also justify this stance with another concept, intersubjectivity.

Collective reality is reality

Intersubjectivity refers to the fact that our minds function in a similar way. We are individuals, but our experience is shared. It accounts for the fact that we communicate, and it has a basis in evolution, which prepared us to live in coordinated groups. We share consciousness, and the medium of sharing is not a mysterious psychic faculty but ordinary language. Language forms the social environment, and it constitutes us as individuals. Not isolated individuals, but members of a group that entails roles, rights and responsibilities. Our psychology is intimately tied to society, and, without this complexity, we couldn’t survive.

Truthfulness plays a central role within our environment. Its function has little to do with the absolute certainty sought by philosophers and scientists. Instead it serves to coordinate members of society. Honest reporting is not just facts. It is good intent, and it conveys a reasonable nature that considers the needs, thoughts and agendas of other people. Facts are established through the intersubjectivity, which demands that another reasonable being, one with equally good intentions, would make the same report. Only then do they become objective. An objective report is something that can be defined by a quorum of reasonable people.

What happens, then, when objectivity is replaced by a partisan attitude? The language is perverted, because, as David Loyn points out, journalism operates in the framework of objectivity. Loyn uses his own experience to describe the dangers of abandoning that framework. When journalists become participants instead of reporters, they cast standards to the wind. Judging right and wrong should be reserved to the citizenry, not the institutions that convey information.

Lies are the simplest example of perversion, and we condemn liars because they distort the fabric of good intent, what we also call ‘trust’, for their own gain. Lies don’t only bend the social fabric. They also twist the fabric of reality, because the liar creates a false world. We are physical bodies, but we are also mental beings, and the mental world is made up of words. Language is the medium of our awareness, and, like material substances, it is vital to our survival.

Word warfare

Americans started playing fast and loose with the word ‘war’ in 1965, when Lyndon Johnson declared a ‘War on Poverty’ (while fighting an undeclared war in Vietnam). It was a worthy cause, and it was also a noble lie because you can’t literally fight poverty. Little harm was done because everyone understood the phrase as a metaphor.

Next came the ‘War on Drugs’. Again you can’t literally fight drugs, but this war brought low-intensity conflict at home and abroad that has lasted for decades. Like a traditional war, the War on Drugs includes military violence, but it is also combined with police action at home, an unusual precedent for war.

Finally, we have the ‘War on Terrorism’. We’ve already been warned that the conflict will be conducted in secrecy over decades. The front is everywhere, although average citizens, leaders no more, may know little about its prosecution.

‘War’ and ‘enemy’ have become arbitrary, even surreal, concepts in the 21st century. Along with ‘terrorist’, they are words used by officials to stigmatise independent thought. As Seymour Hersh recently discovered, even button-pushing journalists can be branded as terrorists if the truths they publish embarrass the government.

Language is the ultimate ground of freedom. It serves us because it offers commonly agreed definitions that provide a foundation for debate. When rulers wrest control of words, they render discussion impossible. The newspeak envisioned by Orwell had a drab, North Korean-type feel. Today’s newspeak is subtler. It doesn’t limit discussion outright; instead it perverts the categories of thought, confusing issues for anyone who lacks the sophistication to recognise what’s happened.

The ultimate warning in George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-four is about mind control. His fictional nation, Oceania, developed a sophisticated apparatus of punishment, surveillance and psychological conditioning. As totalitarian states go, it was far along, but its great, unfinished project was the revision of language. Dissent was possible as long it could be expressed, so the goal was to remove the means of expression, to shave disagreement to a single nub: “Big Brother is ungood.”

Orwell saw the practical consequence of giving power to liars. Unassailable by debate, and possessing vast channels of public media, their assaults on the truthfulness would lead to assaults on language. They would privatise goodness and define it as they please.

Orwell also realised that the assault on truthfulness required a larger context. Like the citizens of Oceania, we who are Americans are always at war, despite living in one of the most secure nations in history. Whose purpose does war serve? “You are either for us or against us.” Consider the psychological import of President Bush’s statement, uttered as the royal we.

For the person who makes it, it conveys self-conviction and a pathological fear of difference; for the dissenter, outrage and the dawning understanding that their interlocutor will not play nice. For the team player, it signifies a shift in boundaries. Good intent is redefined as support for the leader, and truth is what the leader says. The leader’s words are reality, and to contradict them with mere facts is treason. No argument is allowed, even if made in shared interest.

Keeping language in the hands of the people

Journalism plays a critical role in a global society that is connected by media. Most of us only know the world through reporters, so news is of vital importance: it conveys the world at large. Objectivity is essential to maintain a balance of power between leaders and citizens. And objective journalism is an area where theories of knowledge meet another branch of philosophy, ethics.

Humans exist in a web of mutual dependence, and survival calls from certain standards of behavior based on trust and good intent. Truthfulness forms a basis for trust. So, when we look for standards of truth, we don’t just rely on the shaky ontology of formal logic postmodern theory. Refined ethical behaviour sets the standard, and this is where journalists should seek justification for their craft.

Journalists can’t have an easy time of it. Picking the right words must be difficult in a multi-faceted world where partisans throw objectivity to the winds. The word ‘terrorist’ is now so overused that it essentially means “very bad person who disagrees with President Bush.” For a more complex take, look at the way media in different nations have reported the Iraq war. Each approach differs, if only slightly, from the others. Does this mean there is no truth?

Rather than debate metaphysics, let’s say the representatives of the nations represented in openDemocracy’s media monitor came together. They may bring different contexts to the discussion, but as long as they brought good intent, an attitude of truthfulness, we can imagine them establishing a common ground, probably one that synthesised their contrasting views.

Ethics is a practical science. As Aristotle said, virtue is something we cultivate and perfect through long efforts. It derives from experience not theory. There is no recipe for a good report, nor is there an argument that says a good report is impossible. Objectivity arises when journalists ask themselves the questions: How would a reasonable person remark on this situation? Am I leaving something out? Should I add some context, some relevant background that makes it comprehensible?

The choice of words is critical, and knowing what values to apply comes with practice. Narrowing the field of choices, or letting words take on strange, new meanings, doesn’t just subvert the ethics of journalism and human decency. It creates a perverse world where power controls the wellspring of thought.

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