Lies, Prevarication, and Modes of Discourse

“That’s a lie!”

Have you ever heard that in a serious science debate? If you have, the debate has crossed over from objective discussion to inference of intent. In the logical mode, there is no such thing as a lie, just assertions that can be tested as factually correct or incorrect.

I’ve recounted the following anecdote so many times that I’m bored of it, but I realize that grasping my perspective on politics, art, and science is much easier if you know it.

My satori moment with critical theory arrived when the professor said, “All categorical statements are political.” Suddenly I had a deep emotional awareness of being in the wrong class. I stood up and said, “Including that one!” (Well, maybe I didn’t stand up. I can’t remember.)

Boy was he pissed off!

I quit the class soon after. I’d learned everything I needed to learn from that professor.

No, not all categorical statements are political, unless you are looking for their political potential. There is a disinterested mode of scientific inquiry. Is science political? Again, it’s political if you are looking for its political potential. How about art/religion/meaning? Again, it’s political if you are looking for its political potential. There is a different way to receive art; it’s not just a political tool.

What I should have said to the professor is this: “You’ve set up a paradox here, because not everything is indoctrination and persuasion for negotiating power. There’s a disinterested, curious mode of fact production. With the observation ‘All categorical statements are political,’ do you intend to make a statement of fact, or are you trying to indoctrinate us into a certain political perspective? It can’t be a statement of fact, right? Because then the statement would be self-contradicting. When you’re in the political mode, it is consistent to say that all categorical statements are political, but if you are being a real teacher, you operate outside that mode, and therefore the statement is absurd.”

This is the heart of the lying, sneaky-bastard dragon that I hope to slay.

Don’t lie. Don’t lie to other people. Don’t lie to yourself.

And please, for the love of God, don’t lie to the students you’re entrusted to teach.

In the discussion that attended my posting this on Facebook, one person observed that I always make politics the villain. He also claimed that politics and lies could not be separated.

No, I said, they can be separated.

Here’s the problem. If I say John deserves a raise and then someone says that Bob deserves a raise in the same argument, we may have a struggle. It can be equally true that Bob deserves a raise. However, when the topic is John, in the political mode, it may be functionally dishonest to bring up Bob, because it assumes a premise that isn’t at issue.

That’s how facts compete in the political mode. That’s how All Lives Matter becomes dishonest even as it is a morally correct assertion. Slogans are generally dishonest like this. They are only honest if you share the premise. There is no rule in politics that you can’t state the premise and so be honest. It’s just rarely done. Steel-manning is honest. It supplies a working premise to your opponent, but that premise may still be weak and therefore a logical or moral loser.

You could argue that steel-manning takes us out of the political mode into the logical one, so I guess, yes, to make politics honest, you must stop doing politics. Politics is the poker game and then we need the logical showdown to see who had the stronger hand after all, based on shared moral and factual premises. There is a perspective that makes politics dishonest, and that’s where we assume the politicking never stops.

About robertpkruger

Writer, editor, and software developer. Former president of
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