August 2019 Pulse

In March 2018, the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods conducted a series of hearings over a period of eight days to gather views and recommendations from scholars, the media and the general public on a phenomenon that has generated global concern. The National Council of Churches of Singapore participated in this consultation by submitting its analysis and recommendations and by giving testimony before the Committee.

Deliberate online falsehood (or ‘fake news’), it must be noted, is a recent incarnation of a phenomenon that has appeared in different guises and forms for many decades in modern history. For example, it is common knowledge that in the years leading up to World War II, countries involved in the face-off have employed propaganda to aid their causes.

In an article published in 1939, George Gallup could write: ‘Propaganda has grown to be one of the most powerful weapons of modern warfare – useful both in demoralizing enemy forces and in influencing the opinions of neutrals. How aware is the American public that propaganda is being used in the present war, and how effective has that propaganda been so far?’

The use of propaganda in the political realm raises the fundamental question about whether truth matters, and whether it is still being regarded – as it once surely was – as a political virtue. It is in exploring this and related questions that the insights of Hannah Arendt, the Jewish political philosopher whose work deserves far more attention than it has received, may prove instructive and uncannily relevant.

In an essay entitled, ‘Truth and Politics’ first published in 1967 (the background to the essay need not detain us), Arendt bemoans the blatant and pervasive disregard for the truth among politicians. ‘No one has ever doubted that truth and politics are rather on bad terms with each other, and no one, as far as I know, has ever counted truthfulness among the political virtues’.

She adds: ‘Lies have always been regarded as necessary and justifiable tools not only of the politician’s or the demagogue’s but also of the statesman’s trade’.

This disparagement of truth in the name of political expediency raises a number of pressing and disconcerting questions for Arendt, questions that have not lost their significance for us and for our society today. ‘[W]hat does it mean for the nature and dignity of the political realm, on the one side, and for the nature of the dignity of truth and truthfulness, on the other?’ What is at stake for our humanity, and for the future of our society?

Writing very much in response to the darkest periods of her own time – the rise of Nazi Germany and the murder of millions of Jews and the rise of Stalinism and its annihilation of countless peasants – Arendt was understandably concerned primarily with what she calls ‘organised lying’, which she distinguishes from traditional political lying.

For Arendt, ‘organised lying’ is ‘the relatively recent phenomenon of mass manipulation of fact and opinion as it has become evident in the rewriting of history, in image-making, and in actual government policy’. The adjective ‘organised’ indicates that this kind of lying is not the act of individual actors but that of ‘gigantic interest organisations’ and government institutions.

Organised lying, Arendt maintains, has to do with the manipulation of facts known to the public – a clever sleight-of-hand – that ‘rewrites contemporary history under the eyes of those who witness it’.

Organised lies have a remarkable ‘reasonableness’ and ‘coherence’ about them that makes them not only believable but also compelling to members of the public. This is because such lies do not only tweak certain facts or misinform on particular events. Rather they subvert the truth by providing an altogether different reality by organising the facts in a particular way.

Organised lies, explains Arendt, ‘require a complete rearrangement of the whole factual texture – the making of another reality, as it were, into which they will fit without seam, crack or fissure, exactly as the facts fitted into their original contexts’.

This form of lying is dangerous not only because of its ability to deceive the public, but also because of its ability to deceive the very organisation or institution that concocted and perpetuated the lie. In creating this ‘false image’, the liar gradually begins to embrace it as true, that is, to indwell his own lie and thereby becomes trapped willy-nilly in the tangled web of self-deception.

And it is when the liar himself is thus self-deceived – when he is no longer even conscious of the fact that he is lying but inhabits the untruth and becomes a part of it – that the lie becomes most credible and compelling. Such is the insidiousness of organised lying.

A society that does not expose and reject ‘organised lying’ is on the road to destruction, Arendt insists. This is because truth – not matter how devastating or inconvenient it may be – is a non-negotiable foundation for human flourishing – an insight that Arendt may have gleaned from Augustine, whose concept of love is the subject of her doctoral dissertation supervised by Karl Jaspers.

Arendt therefore modifies the famous Latin truism ‘Let justice be done, though the world perish’ (Fiat iustitia, et pereat mundus) into ‘Let truth be told, though the world perish’ (Fiat veritas, et pereat mundus). To sacrifice truth for the sake of the world is ultimately futile.

Arendt therefore argues that our ‘earthly immortality’ – the very continuation and persistence of human society– is dependent on truth-telling, especially political truth-telling. For ‘no permanence, no perseverance in existence, can even be conceived without men willing to testify to what is and appears to them because it is’, she writes.

Arendt insists that without this continuity, this enduring permanence, there can be no shared world. ‘[W]ithout this transcendence into a potential earthly immortality’, she writes, ‘no politics, strictly speaking, no common world and no public realm, is possible’.


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.