Lying politicians are a product of society’s devaluing of truth

Every time I tick that small box that says I have read, understood and agree with several thousands of words of terms and conditions, I am telling a lie.

It might only be a little lie, but the frequency with which I am asked to perform it — almost every time I download a new app, upgrade to a fresh version of an operating system, or sign up for a digital subscription — makes me feel uneasy, and gives me the sense that I am somehow complicit in a bigger one.

Some might argue that I could actually read these terms and conditions before agreeing to them so that I didn’t have to lie. If I did, I would be in a tiny minority — a 2020 study by digital rights group ProPrivacy found just 1 per cent of people read T&Cs before agreeing to them, though 70 per claimed to have done so.

I would also find it hard to live my life: a 2008 paper by two Carnegie Mellon academics calculated that if Americans actually read and consented to the privacy policies on all the websites they visit, it would take an average of 244 hours a year.

Others might feel this is not important. But the idea that, because there are bigger things to worry about, we should not fuss over such systematised dishonesty is precisely the problem. We seem to think nothing of adding slogans or statements to our social media profiles that are totally disingenuous and don’t represent how we really feel. We have so chipped away at the value of truth that we don’t even notice — let alone care about — how often we aren’t quite telling it.

Research conducted during the 2017 French presidential campaign showed that while fact-checking of candidates’ claims improved voters’ knowledge of issues, it did not shift their “policy conclusions” or support for particular individuals. Fact-checking is itself a problematic practice that often fails to do what it says on the tin. So in a world that places truth so low down in the pecking order of societal values, is it any wonder that people such as Boris Johnson continue to show such casual disregard for it? Should we really be surprised that, after changing its story several times, Number 10 thinks it can just tell us that the prime minister had forgotten that he was briefed about allegations of sexual misconduct by Conservative MP Chris Pincher?

If any of us are truly surprised at the tally of untruths that Johnson has racked up at this point, we shouldn’t be. The fact that Britain is run — for now, at least — by such a liar is symptomatic of a wider societal debasing of the truth. As Lord Simon McDonald put it on Tuesday, Johnson’s brand of truth-telling seems to involve “crossing your fingers at the same time and hoping that people are not too forensic in their subsequent questioning”, but he’s not the only one.

Even Donald Trump, who undoubtedly lied more shamelessly and copiously than any president before him, was simply the product of a broader departure from veracity — he wouldn’t have been voted in otherwise. While he might have accelerated the move to a “post-truth” era, the term itself long predates him.

John Tasioulas, professor of ethics and legal philosophy at Oxford university, says there has also been a shift away from the truth in academia over the course of the past several decades. The influence of postmodernist philosophers such as Michel Foucault and Jean-François Lyotard has popularised the idea that claims to objective truth must be systematically debunked.

But it is also the result of other influential thinkers not associated with postmodernism, such as the liberal political theorist John Rawls, who argued that society cannot be organised around any conception of the truth of ethical values, because not all reasonable people would share them.

At the same time, as society has become more polarised, it has become more difficult to question or disagree with “your own side”. Getting to the truth of a matter is a process that requires open and robust discussion and inquiry. If our societies are built on the idea that certain “truths” must simply be swallowed, and that it is wrong even to question them, that stops this process in its tracks.

As Tasioulas tells me, “identifying with the group comes to be far more valued by people than identifying with the truth, because if you really stand up for the truth, you might find yourself being shunned or excluded”.

In the world of professional wrestling, the word “kayfabe” is used to describe the practice — among both the wrestlers and the crowd — of maintaining the illusion that everything is real, when in fact it is all scripted. Every time we tick that little T&Cs box, we are partaking in a kind of society-level kayfabe: the illusion not only that we are telling the truth, but that we continue to value such a thing.

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