A: Sarah Palin is lying about health care reform.
B: Whoa, hold on there. That’s quite the accusation. You want to use the L-word, you’re going to have to prove it.
A: That’s not difficult. Here is the outrageous and demonstrably untrue lie in question, from her Facebook page:
The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.
She’s accusing President Obama of trying to create a “death panel” in which bureaucrats will decide whether or not to euthanize the elderly and handicapped children. That simply isn’t true. It isn’t close to anything that’s close to being true. She’s lying.
B: So you say.
A: No, what I say is irrelevant. What matters is what she said versus what the reality is. She is lying.
B: OK, let’s just say for the sake of argument that what she is saying there isn’t true …
A: It isn’t.
B: So you say.
A: No, again, what I say is irrelevant. What she said was either true or it wasn’t. And it wasn’t. She’s lying.
B: So no gray areas? Just stark moral black and white? And no room for uncertainty? What happened to that “chastened epistemology” you’re always going on about?
A: Chastened, yes. Humble, yes. But not irresponsible. Utter certainty is not a human prerogative, but the pursuit of truth remains a human obligation.
B: “Obligation,” great, more moralistic language.
A: It is a moral obligation, but not solely. Primarily it’s a practical obligation. We can’t not act, so we are obliged to act according to the closest approximation of the truth we can attain without the luxury of certainty.
B: And yet you seem luxuriously certain that Sarah Palin is lying.
A: That’s because Sarah Palin is lying.
B: Prove it.
A: Easy. She says the health care reform plans being considered by Congress include a “death panel.” They do not. She says these plans would give the government the authority to euthanize the elderly and the disabled. They don’t do any such thing.
B: So you say.
A: No, so they say. This is not complicated. It’s an easily verifiable question of fact. The dispute is very specific and it’s a simple matter for anyone to consult the text of the legislation itself and to see there that it doesn’t say what Sarah Palin is claiming it says, or even anything that could be plausibly misconstrued to mean what Palin is claiming it means. She is simply telling brazen lies about the bill itself and about the people who support it.
B: OK, then let’s just say for the sake of argument that what she said is not altogether true …
A: No. Not for the sake of argument. This isn’t hypothetical. It’s a matter of demonstrable, verifiable fact. Her claim is false. Her statement is false. What she said is not true. It is subject to disproof and can be disproved and has been disproved. Her statement is inaccurate. It cannot be reconciled with reality. It goes against the facts of the matter. It is false, false, false.
B: Fine, then, but that still doesn’t prove she’s lying.
A: She’s spreading lies.
B: Possibly, but one can spread lies without lying. Spreading lies does not necessarily make you a liar. Lying has to do with intent. To prove that Sarah Palin is lying, you would have to show not only that her statements are false, but that she knows them to be false and that she is deliberately stating falsehoods with the intent to deceive. So as you can see, the burden of proof for the accusation that someone is “lying,” is quite stringent. It may even be insurmounta …
A: She’s lying, then. That thing you were just describing? That’s exactly what she’s doing.
B: You’re not listening. You can’t prove that she knows that what she is saying is false and you can’t prove her intent.
A: Sure I can. It’s not really that big a deal.
B: Oh, so you’re a mind reader now? What, you can just peer into someone’s soul and show us all what you see there, providing the rest of us with some physical proof of Sarah Palin’s deliberate intent to deceive?
A: No need for any of that, particularly in this case. Her malicious and deliberate intent to deceive is fairly transparent and obvious.
B: Obvious? You’re breaking all the rules for civil discourse here. You’re attributing malice, asserting intent …
A: I’m doing no such thing. I’m not attributing or asserting anything here. I’m recognizing malice and acknowledging intent. I’m merely pointing them out. See those, over there? That’s malice and the intent to deceive. I don’t see why it would be particularly civil to pretend they’re not sitting right there. I’ve never understood civility to require us to pretend we can’t see the elephant in the living room.
B: But these things can’t just be pointed at. Proving malice or intent is extremely difficult, almost impossible.
A: Not really. It happens every day. It’s routine, commonplace. And it’s not that hard. Grab 12 registered voters at random and they’ll prove capable of reaching conclusions about malice and intent that they’ll tell you are beyond reasonable doubt.
B: You mean a jury.
A: Of course. This thing you’re saying is an insurmountable obstacle and a virtual impossibility is, in point of fact, a routine and fundamental part of our justice system. Malicious intent can be, and routinely is, proved.
B: And you believe that you can — “in point of fact,” as you say — prove such malicious intent on the part of Gov. Palin?
A: Is she still a governor?
B: It’s a lifetime honorific, like “Mr. President” or “Champ.”
A: Fair enough. But yes, I believe I can prove such malicious intent on her part.
B: Have at it then.
A: You mentioned that lying requires more than the making of an untrue statement — that the speaker must also know that their statement is untrue.
B: Yes, the falsehood must be deliberate. But what one person knows or doesn’t know is unknowable to another person. As I said, we can’t read minds.
A: We don’t have to read minds, we have deeds. We can look at a person’s actions and see whether their behavior is consistent or inconsistent with their knowing or not knowing the facts in question.
B: I don’t see how you can make such a claim in this case. Suppose, for example, that the governor was, herself, deceived — that she was speaking in good faith, but from bad information. Her actions would seem to be consistent with that scenario, yet it still would not support your accusation that she is deliberately lying.
A: Here’s where the stark simplicity of this particular question of fact weighs against her. The truth here is a matter of public record, easily and quickly accessible to Palin on the same World Wide Web as her Facebook page. Your scenario wouldn’t be a case of her acting in good faith, because she would, at best, be acting recklessly by passing on this misinformation without even a cursory glance to consider whether or not it was, in fact, true.
B: Fine, but reckless isn’t the same thing as malicious.
A: No, but we need to ask what sort of behavior we ought to expect from a person acting in the scenario you describe. The outrageous inaccuracy of her initial statement has now been widely pointed out. This is also a matter of public record, even in Alaska. If she had, indeed, been acting in good faith on bad information, then we would expect to see her now correcting that initial misinformation. She has yet to do so.
B: Well it’s only been a few days, perhaps …
A: Care to bet on that?
B: Point taken. But there are other reasons she might be reluctant to correct her earlier misstatement — pride, ego, the fear that admitting error could harm her political ambition. Those things may be ignoble and unflattering, but such motives might keep one from correcting a falsehood and thus, even if Gov. Palin never issues a retraction or correction, you still haven’t proved that she was deliberately lying.
A: So in trying to defend her against my charge that she is lying, you’ve first had to accuse her of recklessness and then, now, you’re suggesting that her own self-importance may be more important to her than speaking the truth. If this keeps up, you may decide that my calling her a liar is the more charitable option.
B: Be that as it may, you still haven’t proved that she was lying.
A: I think I’ve shown that she has a troubling lack of concern for whether or not what she says is truthful, but you’re right — you’ve asked me to prove malice, not negligence, so let’s continue. The content of the governor’s false claims matters. A casual misstatement about casual matters might be done casually, but Gov. Palin was not addressing a casual matter. She was discussing matters of extreme significance — accusing her political opponents of seeking to institutionalize and legally mandate atrocities most associated with the Nazi regime of the Third Reich in Germany. And yet she made no effort whatsoever to confirm these accusations before repeating them.
B: That very haste — what you earlier characterized as recklessness — could be seen as evidence that she really did believe the accusation. She raced to denounce such atrocities, to speak out against them without pause or delay. That could easily be consistent with her genuine belief that the accusations are true.
A: I don’t think it’s possible to genuinely believe that, unless one is astonishingly ignorant and inconceivably stupid. The sheer impossibility of her claims is an additional piece of evidence proving her disingenuous malice. Let’s just note here that you’ve added gullible and profoundly stupid to the list of necessary attributes for any theory of Sarah Palin other than that she’s a liar.
B: Now you’re just being insulting.
A: No. If she is not deliberately lying, then she must be profoundly stupid — wholly ignorant of American and international law and the slightest memory of even recent history. But that’s your contention, not mine. I merely think she’s a liar.
B: But you still haven’t proved it.
A: Well for her sake, you’d better hope I can. Because if she’s not a liar, then she’s a reckless, egomaniacal, delusional moron.
B: Aha, since you think that she is a liar, then you must conclude that she’s a cautious, humble, intelligent person! Now who’s argument strains credibility?
A: It’s not an either/or situation. The outrageous implausibility of her statement, if she genuinely believed it in the face of such a wealth of contradictory evidence, would force us to conclude that she was very, very stupid. It would not be possible to believe such things without that being the case. But the fact that she does not genuinely believe her accusation — that she is, in fact, lying when she says such things — does not force us to conclude that she is intelligent. The fact that she has chosen such an outlandish and ridiculous lie would, to the contrary, suggest that she might not be the sharpest tool in the shed. We can easily imagine a possible scenario in which she is both stupid and a liar, but no such possible scenario exists that would allow her to believe her own falsehoods without being exceedingly stupid.
B: You’re still speaking as though you’ve already proved your point. You say, “she is, in fact, lying,” as though you’d already established that fact. It seems to me you’re getting ahead of the gun, there.
A: Fair enough. As I said, the content of the governor’s claims matters. She accuses her political opponents of “downright evil” — of a systematic atrocity that would require the setting aside of the Constitution and all pretense of the rule of law while subjecting every American official to arrest and trial in the Hague should any of them step outside of our borders. She is asserting that the president and a majority in Congress are not just sanctioning by mandating the killing of the elderly and of handicapped infants — including, she notes, her own youngest child.
B: I’ll grant that such beliefs are implausible and extreme, but plenty of people genuinely believe all kinds of implausible and extreme things. You yourself believe a host of extreme and implausible things about a certain Galilean. Extremity and implausibility do not, in themselves, constitute proof of disingenuousness.
A: In some cases, I think they prove exactly that. Palin’s accusations belong to a category of beliefs that would compel any person genuinely believing them to act. If you really, truly believe that the abolition of the Constitution is imminent and the government is about to start actively slaughtering the weakest members of our national community, including your own son, then you’re going to attempt something a bit more consequential than a Facebook posting urging your readers to consider voting for the other party next time around. Palin’s actions here, her own response to the accusations she is making, are woefully inadequate, tepid and flimsy compared to the enormity and monstrosity of what she is alleging.
B: So if I’m hearing you right, you’re suggesting that certain accusations, by definition, cannot be genuine.
A: Not quite. I’m suggesting that certain accusations cannot be regarded as genuine in the absence of corresponding action in response to those accusations. Imagine your neighbor tells you that he believes space aliens have released an odorless toxic gas that will instantly kill anyone who ventures outside. If your neighbor tells you this over the phone from inside his home where he has been
shuttered for the past week, then it
9;s possible he may genuinely believe this. But if your neighbor comes running outside to tell you this as you’re getting into your car, and if you’ve witnessed him routinely going about his business indoors or out with no apparent fear of the poison space gas, then you can conclude, conclusively, that he doesn’t really believe a word of what he’s saying either.
B: So now you’re saying that Gov. Palin is a whackjob on par with a crazy neighbor who believes in aliens.
A: No, I’m saying she’s a whackjob on par with a crazy neighbor who doesn’t really believe in aliens, but goes around telling everybody he does. The only way it would be possible for us to believe that she really believed what she was saying would have been for her statement to have come to us on the pirate radio station operated by the Patriotic Resistance Front, broadcasting from the secret remote location where she had fled to protect her son from Obama’s Death-Panel Gestapo while plotting the second American Revolution to restore democracy.
B: Hey now, calm down a bit. You don’t want to say things like that because you might give people ideas. After Scott Roeder and James von Brunn, it seems reckless and irresponsible of you to go off on a rant about the inherent disingenuousness of extreme fears about the evils of the government. Talk like that is liable to send another lethal nut off the deep end just to prove to people like you that he’s not a liar but really, sincerely believes whatever the latest nightmare is about some government evil.
A: Are you worried that Sarah Palin is like that, that she’s a ticking time bomb who might, at any time, go off on a shooting spree or bomb a federal building?
B: Of course not, not her personally …
A: Because you know as well as I do that she doesn’t really mean what she’s saying. That she is insincere. She knows that what she is saying isn’t really true, but she says it anyway in the hopes of convincing others to believe something she knows to be false. She is, in other words, lying.
B: OK, OK, if I concede that she probably is lying, will you agree to stop talking about what it would take for crazy anti-government theorists to prove their sincerity? Because I really don’t like to think about what some of these people might do just to prove to doubters like you that they’re true believers.
A: But those are exactly the kinds of dangerous crazy people that Sarah Palin is appealing to and inciting with her lies about “death panels” and evil government conspiracies. She’s not going to go on a shooting spree or bomb a federal building, because she knows that her accusations are complete and utter bullshit. And 99.99 percent of the people agreeing with her know it’s bullshit, too, but they smile and nod and play along because they like the idea of feeling superior to a bunch of evil government types who murder handicapped children, even if it’s all just imaginary. But that 10,000th guy, the crazy one with the guns and the fertilizer, he’s just crazy enough to think it’s all real. And when the next one pops up and pops off, acting on the warning Sarah Palin herself issued, she will claim she’s not responsible, that she had nothing to do with it.
B: You have a rather dim view of humanity, don’t you?
A: A dim enough view to realize that we’re all of us capable of self-deception, of choosing to believe implausible things that might make us feel better about ourselves. But not so dim a view that I’m willing and eager to believe that the majority of my neighbors are baby-killing monsters. Seriously, I’ve pointed out that Sarah Palin is a lying liar spreading lies and you’ve accused me of attributing malice. Palin meanwhile accuses millions of Americans of endorsing the slaughter of their own grandparents. If that’s not attributing malice, I don’t know what is.
B: For the record, I said “probably.” You still haven’t proved that …
A: Oh, shut up.