Little Lies and Big Truths

Brett Kavanaugh lied. Yet, as I just pointed out, Republicans are still fighting hard to put him on the Supreme Court, ignoring any damage to the (admittedly quite cracked) political neutrality of the court.

The most obvious explanation is that Kavanaugh is one of their own. Jeff Flake declared “I’m a conservative. He’s a conservative;” Kavanaugh shored up his Republican support by spinning conspiracy theories about a vast Democratic coalition trying to take him down, conspiracies we see echoed by Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, and Lindsay Graham; and the arbitrary deadline of one week was to prevent a partisan “fishing exposition.”

Partisanship doesn’t explain everything, though. Take Donald Trump: he wasn’t much of a Republican, has been at odds with his own party and allies repeatedly, yet is still enjoying broad support from Republicans of all stripes. There’s got to be something more at work here.

A special-access lie is a deliberately false statement based on facts about which the speaker is thought to have special access. A good example of such a lie is Bill Clinton’s notorious false claim that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman” (i.e., Monica Lewinsky). […] A common-knowledge lie is quite different. This is a false assertion about facts to which the speaker has no special access. … For instance, Trump often pointed to information that was supposedly in the public domain to support his claims, even if it was easily demonstrable that such supporting evidence did not exist (e.g., his claim that his election victory was “the biggest electoral college win since Ronald Reagan,” or his claims regarding the size of the crowd at his inauguration). As such, the ideal-typical case of this type of lie is one in which the speaker not only knows the statement is false, but she knows her listeners also know that she knows the statement is false; it is thus common knowledge that the statement is false.

Hahl, Oliver, Minjae Kim, and Ezra W. Zuckerman Sivan. “The Authentic Appeal of the Lying Demagogue: Proclaiming the Deeper Truth about Political Illegitimacy.” American Sociological Review 83.1 (2018): 7-9.

A tweet by one of the study authors suggested what that “more” could be. “Common knowledge” lies are false statements that are either known to be lies or could easily be verified to be a lie. Why do these types of lies exist? They signal something to the listener.

In particular, whereas the speaker of a special-access lie is implicitly upholding the norm of truth-telling, the common-knowledge liar is implicitly attacking this norm. Following Frankfurt (2005), such a liar is a type of “bullshit artist”: he is publicly challenging truth as a prescriptive norm. … Insofar as a speaker seems capable of distinguishing between truth and falsehood and yet utters a statement everyone knows is false, the speaker is flouting the norm of truth-telling and inviting his listeners to endorse such violations. Indeed, listeners are complicit in the norm violation as long as they do not challenge him—and especially if they applaud him.

Hahl (2018): 9.

In the general case, the speaker is arguing that everyone lies, but no-one wants to admit it. By breaking that taboo, they flag themselves as speaking truth to power, even if they themselves are quite powerful. For instance, Kremlin propaganda doesn’t argue Russia is free of corruption, instead it argues every country is corrupt. Admitting to this truth gains your trust and allows them room to be corrupt, plus denies any way to actually fix corruption.

A minority—or even a majority under some conditions (…)—may privately disagree with publicly-endorsed norms, but a group’s established leadership (however formal or informal) tends to determine group membership, at least in part, based on compliance with such norms. Accordingly, individuals who seek social acceptance generally have an incentive to hide their deviance through public compliance and even to enforce a norm they do not privately endorse (…). […] Put differently, voters have two ways to determine a candidate’s authenticity. One
approach is to determine authenticity on the basis of the candidate’s sincerity or prosociality: inauthentic candidates are those who tell lies or who violate publicly-endorsed norms. A second approach for determining authenticity is based on the implicit claim of the lying demagogue – that is, publicly-endorsed norms are imposed rather than freely chosen. The lying demagogue thus claims to be an authentic champion of those who are subject to social control by the established political leadership.

Hahl (2018): 10-11

People may say they never got drunk in high school or college, but Kavanaugh is indirectly calling them liars. By lying about Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony and Leland Ingham Keyser’s statements, he’s dog-whistling that every guy has forced themselves on women but few would admit to it. By saying he earned his seat at Yale through hard work when he didn’t, Kavanaugh is quietly saying he’s on the side of people with power and privilege.

What’s the larger truth in Kavanaugh’s case? I’m speculating now but I’d say there are three levels to it.

At the most basic level, it’s simply that it’s unacceptable to hold someone accountable for high school hijinks 35 years later, esp without evidence. And so when he claims there were no hijinks when everyone knows there were, he’s inviting his fellow partisans to help protect…

… him from being held to an unfair standard. They know he’s lying but they collude in the lie for a higher purpose.

Second, the larger truth may be the partisan battle, as evoked by his opening statement. Under this logic, the GOP are invited to collude in his lies bc he will be a reliable champion of the cause. The lies are in service of the larger truth that Democratic power is illegitimate.

Finally, and as suggested by our experiments, he may also be appealing to his fellow traditionalists’ anxiety about threats to their culture. What kind of real American doesn’t like beer, amirite? And what kind of loser doesn’t have too many beers once in awhile? The larger…

… truth then is that those high school hijinks were *good* and it’s wrong for these jerks to now cast aspersions on them. Of course these three logics are complementary. One, two, or three of them could be working for any one person.

No wonder Republicans have rallied to Kavanaugh’s side and, via their conspiracies, added falsehoods of their own. It also changes our rhetorical tactics.

Larger implication: Exposing lies is insufficient to reach across this kind of partisan divide. We have to look harder for the deeper implicit claims being made & why they resonate with those who seem unable to see the lies. They *can* see the lies but their *focus* is elsewhere.