The Lie as a Tool in the Toolbox of Evil

This piece appeared as a newspaper op/ed on March 6, 2021


Previously, I defined “Evil” as a “coherent force” that consistently spreads “a pattern of brokenness.”

The various forms that “brokenness” can take —like cruelty, hatred, conflict, greed, the lust to dominate— have in common that they make things worse in the human world. Which makes them “tools” in Evil’s toolbox.

Of all Evil’s tools, the one I often focus on is “the Lie.”

That focus reflects something about me. Truthfulness was a paramount virtue in my family culture, and when I ran for Congress against Bob Goodlatte in our district in 2012, my campaign slogan was “Truth. For a change.” I was running, I declared, because “the lie is so often defeating the truth.” 

But it also makes sense to focus on the Lie, because deception is so central to what might be called “the strategy of Evil.” (There’s good reason that – in the religious tradition of our civilization – the Devil, who personifies “Evil,” is often called “the Deceiver.”)

The most consequential Lie of America’s recent history demonstrates how powerful a Lie can be in breaking what’s Good—like American democracy.

  • Without that Lie about the election being stolen (taken from Trump by Biden), almost certainly there would have been no violent attack on the U.S. Capitol, attempting to overthrow the constitutional election process.
  • And without that Lie still being believed by tens of millions, our nation would be far more able to repair the considerable damage that America has lately suffered on many levels.

Even mostly “good” people, deceived into believing a false picture of the world, can be led to serve Evil.

But just as the Lie is useful to Evil in making the world more broken, so also do other forms of brokenness make people readier to believe the Lie.

That Big Lie about the election, for example, should have been impossible to sell. Anyone well-connected with reality should have readily recognized its falsehood:

  • It was obvious to the whole world, except Trump’s followers, that even before the Election Trump was waging a campaign to deceive his supporters about his likely upcoming defeat, to enable him to hold onto power despite his losing the election. It wasn’t hidden, it wasn’t even subtle. Trump was clearly determined either to win or to use the Lie to overthrow the Constitution and defy “the will of the people.”
  • And then after the election, it was made blatantly obvious – through many dozens of court cases, investigations, recounts, etc. – that the claims Trump and his enablers were making were totally baseless, that Biden had won as fair and square as any of the Presidents the American people have elected.

But despite how obvious the truth was, three-fourths of the Republican base believe the Big Lie about the Stolen Election.

Which raises the question: What makes it possible for otherwise intelligent people to believe so obvious a Lie?

The study of families has revealed how some people are taught early on to deny reality.

For example, might part of the answer lie in an upbringing in which children are raised to regard important aspects of their needs and desires as so harshly forbidden that they learn to deny they are there?

Such denial is a lie which, while preventing inner conflict, can spread brokenness out into the world: the forbidden parts of the self remain a disturbing presence on the fringes of consciousness, often leading to the projection onto others – scapegoat groups — those qualities one has been taught to regard as evil.

That’s why it’s no coincidence that many of the same people who bought Trump’s Big Lie also invest great emotional energy into hostility toward some “Them.” No coincidence that people attacking the Capitol to “Stop the Steal” included many White Supremacists, and people whose sweatshirts declared that Hitler hadn’t killed enough Jews.

Another way that brokenness in a family culture might create fertile ground for even obvious lies to take root is suggested by what was my first campaign slogan, “Let’s Talk About the Elephant in the Room.”

That phrase is often used to call attention to some important reality in the family situation that everyone is required to pretend isn’t there. (For example, that one of the parents is a violent alcoholic.)

Such dynamics can teach people to embrace a lie while blinding themselves to the plain truth before their eyes.

Such dynamics also can change what people understand as “Truth.” Instead of its meaning “what the evidence in the world shows to be true,” it becomes instead “what our group agrees to claim is true.

The lie is agreed to because it serves the purposes of those with the power to call the shots, and of the other members because the Lie is what holds their “Us” together (and because speaking truth would threaten their belonging).

If no one believed any lies, the world would become so much more whole. But also, the world would have to be so much more whole for people to grow into beings whose minds the Lie cannot so readily take over.

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