Friday, 7 June 2013

On lying and taint

There are two schools of thought on lying. One, which I shall call the unsophisticated (or unrealistic) school, goes like this:

  • I am an honest person, and all my friends are honest people, we don't lie and we don't need to lie. There are other people who are dishonest, and they tell lies. Avoid them.
It is the straight forward, common sense view that if you are honest then you don't need to lie.

The sophisticated (or realistic) school goes like this:
  • Although I am mostly an honest person, there are times when it is necessary to tell lies. Lying is a sophisticated social skill which helps to aid everyday interactions between people, and is justifiable on other occasions. Everyone tells lies to some degree or another; it is what they tell lies about, and for what reason that truly explains someones character.
I was reminded of the sophisticated version recently when talking to Ben, my neighbour's four year old son, who I occasionally walk home from school. We had been given some sandwiches by my wife, but Ben didn't want them because they were cheese and tomato, and he didn't like tomato. I took the tomato out, but he still didn't like them because as he said they had "sauce" in them. In fact it was pickle. After I had eaten them I said: "When Alison comes in, we must say we loved the sandwiches". We were conspiring to tell a lie, so that she continued to make us sandwiches. "We'll tell her that we ate them all up, but that our favourite sandwiches are ...". I was explaining to Ben how to tell a white lie, to keep my wife's feelings happy, and to ensure a future supply of sandwiches. I think the point was lost on Ben, who is as I said before is only four years old.

I have fleshed out sophisticated lying, mostly because that is the school of thought where I firmly belong. You might believe that no adult believes in the unsophisticated school. However, consider this recently from PZ Myers:
I’ve had the displeasure of encountering Gurdur on many a forum for at least 15 years. He’s always been a smug shit-stirring liar. Back when I was exploring various other atheist forums after iidb fractured, one of my criteria was no Gurdur…and when he inevitably showed up to levy smarmy “advice” on how to run things to the forum organizers, I knew they were about to die in acrimony and noise. Nasty little character.
Myers labels Gurdur as a liar but offers no other reader the opportunity to check whether Gurdur has ever lied or not. Notice how Myers also uses the language of shunning. Gurdur is a "smug shit-stirring liar", he's "smarmy" and a "nasty little character". This is typical of those who believe in the unsophisticated school of lying, Myers is saying Gurdur is not like himself and should be avoided.

Russell Blackford is a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle in Australia, but Myers calls him "a lying fuckhead". So again Myers use of lying falls into the unsophisticated, in this case highly unrealistic, school. Could Blackford have risen to work as a university lecturer if his only quality is that he is a lying fuckhead? Unlikely, but from Myers' viewpoint this appears to make sense.

I believe that Myers' use of shunning language is also connected to the concept of taint. Taint is often found in religious circles, where one sect encourages the shunning of another sect because the credo or practices are tainted. Taint is an irrational behaviour, because it holds that once something is tainted, it will magically always stay tainted. Myers doesn't quote evidence and instances of lying, he says that the person is a liar, and loads abusive swearwords onto them in order to increase the taint. To use taint in such an open and unsophisticated way is a surprising thing to be found in one who claims to be a font of rationalism and skepticism.

Further evidence of Myers use of taint can be seen in related behaviours. Labelling of those that visit certain websites as 'MRAs' or 'pitters' and thus needing to be shunned. Labelling those who do not believe in Myers' own definition of atheism as 'mysoginistic', again a crime worthy of shunning. With Myers the tactic is always to produce an us and them.

Myers' unsophisticated and unrealistic views on lying are not sustainable. He really does live in the bubble or echo chamber which many of his critics accuse him of, because his shunning tactics isolate him from his harshest critics. If you believe in the sophisticated view of lying, then you must accept that Myers has decent and honest people around him. However they see him first as a friend and are prepared to overlook the holes in his arguments and his appalling behaviour. For instance, Myers' blog is famed for his endorsement of the "rotting porcupine and tell you to stuff it up your nether orifice" meme - anal rape culture in other words, which I find beyond the pale. How wrong this is was not clear to me until I read a blogpost by Skepsheik, cataloguing how Myers has encouraged a culture of sexual threats. Reading some feminist literature recently it struck me how his promotion of rape culture is utterly inconsistent with feminist ideology. Knowing that Myers surrounds himself with many active feminists, I felt I had to act to expose the hypocrisy. The only real question left is how does one get those around Myers to see sense, to question his irrational, unproductive and disgusting behaviours, and to join the real world. To me, Myers is tainted until he recants his former endorsement of sexual threats and violence.

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