Citizen Action Monitor

“We exist in a world where truth is punished and liars may lie at will” — AL Kennedy

No 853 Posted by fw, September 15, 2013

“While the powerful seem increasingly able to simply redefine what truth is, what “is” is, the whistleblowers are treated with increasing severity. In government, in business, in healthcare, education, and the security services, the useful truths whistleblowers bring are ignored or punished with dismissal, smears, gagging orders, even imprisonment. While journalism can sometimes seem irrevocably corrupted by rented opinions and gossip, serious investigative journalists, professional truth-tellers, are in every sense an endangered species.”AL Kennedy

In a BBC Radio 4, Point of View presentation, Scottish writer and university professor Alison Louise “AL” Kennedy, reflects on the struggle to establish truth in what she regards as an age of lies. Lies, she says, are proliferating on TV, in politics, in business and throughout public and private life. Extracting truths in moral and effective ways, she argues, is an ever greater challenge.

Kennedy’s talk will continue to be accessible for listening until Thursday, September 19, 2013, and perhaps longer, at http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/pov

GREAT PRETENDERS is the title of Kennedy’s 10-minute talk, first broadcast on September 13.

Here is my transcript of the broadcast. The hyperlinks are mine.

AL Kennedy

AL Kennedy

More than a decade ago I met a liar and I rewarded him for lying to me. At the time it seemed like the right thing to do. Imagine it’s a January night and snow underfoot, and I’m with a group of Scottish writers loose in Manhattan after an upstate festival we’re all slightly glad is over. We were heading for dinner but at the moment we’re standing in the dark cold air while a total stranger lies to us. We know he’s lying because the story he’s telling makes no sense. And we’re quite good at stories. And we’re kind of giving the stranger notes to improve his scam while he’s requesting cash. The man isn’t dressed for the weather and is shivering. The shivering isn’t a lie. And we do all give him money. We say we aren’t fooled but are rewarding his excellent performance and we want him to head indoors now and be warm. He gave a good show, and we’re paying for it.

At the time this all felt like an unfamiliar situation – being openly deceived and rewarding the deceiver anyway, choosing to treat the deception as entertainment rather than feeling robbed or seeking redress. Today it seems the scenario is commonplace. Falsehoods proliferate. Multiple TV formats rely on cheap and nasty deceptions, but they’re just fun. It’s less fun when MPs juggle statistics until they blur, companies tailor phrasing to dodge lawsuits, and many of us now assume something isn’t true precisely because we read it in the papers. And batsmen won’t walk because cricket just isn’t cricket anymore. Reliable truths seem threatened, if not unattainable. And the public response required is that of an appreciative audience. It’s all just showbiz now.

And yet we generally dislike being deceived. In fact we try to avoid it. We pore over articles at online guides which promise to reveal the honesty of our partners. We study books on body language so we can decode each other in love or business. Our crime dramas emphasize the importance of scrutinizing eye movements and gestures. While government surveillance and commercial data mining appropriate private truths, we can buy software to monitor our loved ones.

In what feels like an age of lies, we struggle to establish the truths of others. And once suspicion enters in the lover’s question, “What are you thinking?” can begin to expect the answer, “That I’ll smother you in your sleep.” Because it’s hard to know if someone’s lying. Lie detector tests generally aren’t admissible in court because they don’t reliably know either. Juries tend to believe eyewitnesses who believe themselves, although they’re notoriously likely to be mistaken. Professional investigators tend to be only averagely good at spotting lies but disastrously tend to believe they’re much better than average. Examining video recordings of faces for micro-expressions can be informative to trained observers but, professionally and privately, observer bias can lead to seek only evidence that reinforces our preconceptions.

And how do we get the truth from those who are delusional, who would feel comfortable lying? Or who’ve trained themselves to lie effectively. They could be deeply dangerous individuals, but impervious to interrogation. And when the stakes are high, when we’ve been harmed or believe we will be, then the pressures to prove and punish guilt, to really deal with those who have terrible capacities increases. But how do we unlock genuinely mysterious, possible resilient, perhaps monstrous human beings? How do we get the truth from expert liars?

Back in the realm of showbiz, we’re increasingly told in TV and movies that the answer to our problem lies in torture. Heroes and heroines used to remain unbroken by evil torturers. Now for Mr. Blonde to Jack Bauer, Ethan Hunt to Dexter and across a slew of cop shows, we’re offered fictions in which heroes and heroines are torturers – who threaten torture, who ramp up their interrogation violence in glitzy, even funny, ways, although the camera shies away from showing anything too dreadful. It’s sexier to flirt with the idea of torture than show the hours of degradation, the scars of abuse, still punishing decades later.

And politics being, as they say, showbiz for ugly people, the lure of torture as a no-nonsense, macho necessity can seem irresistible. What once was held to be a practice of dark regimes is presented as a not-too-embarrassing home truth, softened by a Hollywood makeover. It has been redefined as “torture-lite” or something a refugee victim did to themselves, a bad habit a useful ally may yet grow out of. The useful habit, we exploit in a bad ally, something threaded darkly through UK court proceedings.

But those who find the practice of torture acceptable will have not only abandoned their humanity, they have also forgotten their history and fallen for a lie in search of truth. Arguably the first manual for witch hunters, the Malleus Maleficarum, first published in 1487, included a warning that torture victims might say anything to stop the pain. In Cautio Criminalis, [Precautions for Prosecutors] printed in 1631, former witch confessor, Friedrich Spee, also warns against the tainting effects of pain and the tendency of one untrue confession to unleash a cascade of exponentially unreliable information. He notes that is both confession and silence are taken as signals of guilt then everyone is guilty.

Truth evaporates. Combine observer bias with unfettered cruelty and paranoia and you get the Holy Inquisition’s centuries of pain. Or you get Pinochet’s Chile, Pol Pot’s Cambodia. You walk inside Abu Ghraib, the Columbia-Haus, [unintelligible], buildings where innocence becomes impossible. And the truth that emerges concerns torture itself. That torture isn’t about information. What it gathers is often useless or worse. Torture is a promise of terror, enough terror to subdue a mind or a population. Except, of course, the promise is a lie. Torture blinds security forces with repetitions of the nightmares they brought with them and it begs for justice, creates opposition.

Among other forms of resistance, torture produces whistleblowers – people who can walk into buildings infected with inhumanity and remain human. They make the truth of torture known, sometimes at great personal risk. It seems in fact an epidemic of various concealments and deceptions is giving rise to a wider and wider whistleblowing response. While the powerful seem increasingly able to simply redefine what truth is, what “is” is, the whistleblowers are treated with increasing severity. In government, in business, in healthcare, education, and the security services, the useful truths whistleblowers bring are ignored or punished with dismissal, smears, gagging orders, even imprisonment. While journalism can sometimes seem irrevocably corrupted by rented opinions and gossip, serious investigative journalists, professional truth-tellers, are in every sense an endangered species. Specifically targeted in war zones, curbed and intimidated by both oppressive regimes and democracies.

So we exist, it would appear, in a world where truth is punished and liars may lie at will about levels of surveillance, expense claims, statistics and financial transactions, about abuses, failures in care, about the crushing to death of human beings at Hillsborough. And only slowly, slowly will truths emerge and then be denied before the even slower push for acknowledgment and then justice, then, perhaps, reconciliation. Progress.

Our situation seems bleak. But equally, we may be at a tipping point when the show-biz dazzle of the narrative is no longer enough to make us pay up, express our gratitude for the skill of the fraud. More and more individuals now have more ways than ever before to declare necessary truths. We may be on the brink of an age when both lies and fears diminish and we can face each other honestly to find the joys in privacy and revelation. Maybe to ask, and answer, “What are you thinking?” can be again an act of love.

Alison Louise “AL” Kennedy is a Scottish writer of novels, short stories and non-fiction. She contributes columns and reviews to UK and European newspapers. Kennedy currently lives in Glasgow and is an Associate Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Warwick. She performs as a stand-up comedian at the Edinburgh Fringe, comedy clubs and literary festivals.

FAIR USE NOTICE: This blog, Citizen Action Monitor, may contain copyrighted material that may not have been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. I claim no ownership of such materials. Such material, published without profit, is made available for educational purposes, to advance understanding of human rights, democracy, scientific, moral, ethical, and social justice issues. It is published in accordance with the provisions of the 2004 Supreme Court of Canada ruling and its six principle criteria for evaluating fair dealing.

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This entry was posted on September 15, 2013 by in counterpower of one, information counterpower, moral & ethical counterpower, political action and tagged , .
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