All warfare is based on deception.-Sun Tzu
Sun Tzu’s observation seems obvious. After all, even individual soldiers in combat do everything they can to deceive their immediate enemies about where they are, how powerful they are, what they are going to do next, etc.
Bu the reverse statement is also true. As the communication in any conflict becomes more completely deceitful, that conflict becomes a war, whether weapons are used, or firefights occur, or people die of wounds. And in a war, deceit is both forgivable and self-sustaining.
Forgivable because, for the participants, the war seems to be about the continued existence of the lying community’s most critical values (or those of specific individuals in the community for that matter), and self-sustaining, because lying is like any other arms race, driving the combatants to some sink of end-point effectiveness. It doesn’t matter that there are no corpses on the field of battle. Everyone believes that they can become a casualty if they don’t lie well enough, and that they can experience ultimate victory over their opponent if they just lie a little better than that opponent.
Our current use of the weapon of lying is reaching its ultimate possible value, and it will have less and less effect over time. But it will continue to be used for a long, long time. And it is not at all clear that there is any alternative to lying within the system of our current conflicts.
Lying has become a basic parameter of our ongoing political, social, and financial discourse, and it drives the effectiveness of the entire agenda of global political, social, and financial elites, whether governmental or corporate. It is the context now, not the exception. Even the mildest of messages is tweaked to hide the negative implications and to make it easier to absorb. After all, only the message matters, right?
No more deliberation among communities over uncomfortable differences so as to arrive at some common step forward.
Our recent election is a good example of this truth. There are now bots whose sole purpose is to generate lies that are provocative so that people will expand attention and energy finding out more about them, and adjust their beliefs, perhaps ever so slightly, to accommodate the deceit.
Lies are a core weapon of this war, for all the communities involved in it. And lies are a form of authoritarianism, as our world’s dictators have always known. Lies are the foundation of the more obvious activities of authoritarian governing, whether political, social, or financial. And no amount of tinkering with the algorithms of social networks will get rid of that reality.
It is not possible to undermine this self-sustaining system of lying from within the self-sustaining system. The only options inside that system of lying are victory or failure. Note also that the lies themselves don’t matter. What was viral today can’t be remembered tomorrow. It is the constant novelty of the lies that seeds their continuation, not the content. In the long run, it is this requirement for constant novelty that dooms the weapon of lying.
So what should be our response? I think we have to take the long view and build something that doesn’t perpetuate the current self-sustaining system of lies.
The core of building that new strategy must be organizing and community support, as has always been the case in dealing with authoritarian regimes.
But we can’t fall for the trap of organizing community and building social support in the midst of the self-regulating system of lying that has become our national and global arena of discourse. That would be like standing in a relentless hail of bullets, holding up your hand, and saying, “Stop Shooting”.
First, we have to create spaces within which community can be built locally and support offered locally. Our engagement with that larger self-sustaining dynamic of lies must be truly strategic, so that we don’t get caught up in the kind of enormous waste of energy that we have witnessed recently.
We must substitute foundation disruption for short term victory or defeat.
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