We’ve got plenty of good reasons to lie. And increasingly few reasons not to. So why aren’t we all at it?
I was wondering this while watching Labour’s attempts to bar Sir Roger Scruton from a government appointment. Earlier this week, the Opposition demanded an urgent question in Parliament over whether Scruton was a suitable person to be the unpaid head of an advisory body called “Building Better, Building Beautiful”. The claims made in the ensuing debate by the Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Andrew Gwynne, pulsated with inaccuracies and lies.
Attempting to whip himself and his few present colleagues up into a righteous lather, Gwynne made what is now a standard attack. He accused Scruton of each of the sins of the current age: homophobia, racism, prejudice, bigotry and more.
He talked of Scruton’s “links to far-Right organisations” when no such links exist. Presumably the reason Gwynne repeated this canard in the House of Commons was because he would be protected there by Parliamentary immunity. Three decades ago, when a Left-wing paper made a similarly unfounded claim, Scruton sued them and won, with the newspaper forced to pay substantial damages.
But Gwynne was emboldened. He claimed that during a speech in Hungary, Scruton had spoken about the “Jewish intelligentsia” in anti-Semitic terms. It was a claim that anybody who had actually read the speech would know to be untrue. Gwynne then cited a Huffington Post article which Gwynne said showed that Scruton had “spoken favourably of the National Front, calling it an ‘egalitarian movement’”.
Again, anybody who had read the original 1983 piece in The Times would see what the Huffington Post and the Labour frontbench were studiously trying not to: “egalitarian” was not used as a term of praise but as part of a piece condemning the politics of the National Front and their ilk. Scruton criticised them for being “populist” and “hostile to constitutional government and to traditional authority, fired by ideology and by a spurious search for a common purpose”. Gwynne, like the Huffington Post, would have known this, since the Huffington Post also published a portion of the Scruton column which included the words.
Undeterred, Gwynne plugged away happily with his lie, later re-Tweeting a libellous Tweet by a Corbynista named Andrew Fisher which stated that Scruton “thinks the National Front are a lovely ‘egalitarian’ bunch”.
The same Roger Scruton who also thinks the National Front are a lovely "egalitarian" bunch …https://t.co/L5euXJnFOq
— Andrew Fisher (@FisherAndrew79) November 12, 2018
Is this really now an acceptable way of conducting oneself in public life? I’ve discussed the subject in the past with Sam Harris: how a certain type of person is eminently willing to make unfounded, untrue and spurious claims about people with whom they disagree simply in order to win a political round. Why, I wondered, when confronted with a blantant untruth, don’t more people don’t simply respond in a similar vein?
Why, I asked Sam, when he is accused of some kind of invented bigotry, doesn’t he reply by saying that he’s not going to take this sort of thing from a known child-molester? He could say, after the furore had died down: “Oh I’m terribly sorry, but since you decided to throw around one false claim I thought I’d throw one right back. Now we’re good, right?”
Watching Gwynne attacking Scruton, I must confess a little of this impulse came over me. Gwynne asserted that Scruton was such a “homophobe” that the government should “apologise to the LGBTQ community” for even putting him forward as an adviser on architecture. And I wondered why people didn’t simply decide to call Andrew Gwynne a homophobe? After all, there is a perfectly straightforward – and only slightly dishonest – means of getting there.
I might claim, for instance, that in claiming to speak on behalf of gay people Andrew Gwynne (who is straight) is not only presumptuous, but is robbing gay people of agency. Ergo his recent statements are a demonstration of homophobia. Since everyone is now agreed that acts of ‘hate’ are in the eye of the beholder, why should I not claim that I am a victim of a hate crime from Andrew Gwynne and that I believe he is motivated by homophobia?
In America, and across the rest of the Western democracies, you can see this thinking going on just beneath the surface. Everywhere, people are stooping to the level of their hated opponents. Broadcasters and journalists at all those outlets, like CNN, which like to accuse President Trump of narcissism and exaggeration haven’t noticed that they have taken on many of those characteristics they claim to deplore. In Britain, many of the people who have spent years accusing Brexiteers of foaming at the mouth have demonstrated that they are not averse to a little foam of their own.
But most striking everywhere has been the breakdown in the taboo over telling lies. Or to put it another way, the punishment for lying is getting smaller and the rewards for doing it successfully have grown.
So why shouldn’t we do it? Only for the reason that remained at the back of my conscience as I watched Labour’s pitifully unsuitable Shadow Communities Secretary foaming away about “far-Right associations” and “homophobia” and the rest. If you are willing to use any weapon no matter the cost in order to win a political round, then the likelihood is that you will never know when to put down the weapon you have seized.
Lies are tools which if deployed even once will become your tools of habit. And the greatest likelihood then is that – filled with zeal – you will have no means of stopping yourself from becoming precisely the thing that you started off by hating. And I for one could not face a future resembling Andrew Gwynne.