So some guy on Twitter —
— oh, yes, this is probably nut-picking. I’m latching on to a random individual in a social media thread here because he provides a clear and stark example that will allow us to establish the general principle before we go on to see how that principle can, in turn, be applied to more fraught and consequential topics in which some folks are more emotionally invested. That investment makes them more resistant to accept what they might more easily accept when the topic is more removed, more abstract, and concerns only some random guy on Twitter. So that’s where we’re starting.
So, anyway, some guy on Twitter got in over his head by angrily arguing that, in his words: “Obama hated christmas and wanted to ban the term merry christmas. Fact.”
The poor fellow was rightfully roasted for asserting and attempting to defend a belief that was so obviously untrue and so easily disproved. President Obama, after all, was president for two terms, so there’s a wealth of video from eight Decembers’ worth of “Merry Christmases” and “Mele Kalikimakas,” plus a host of very public records and reports demonstrating that Twitter dude’s belief couldn’t possibly survive the vast array of evidence against it (or the utter lack of any evidence in support of it).
But I think that misses Twitter dude’s real problem. It’s not that he believes something that is untrue. It’s that he does not actually believe in the things he claims to believe.
This is why it is so bafflingly, frustratingly useless to respond to him with facts and evidence. Correcting his incorrect “facts” can do nothing to persuade him because he already knows these “facts” are absurd. He is not an ignorant person in need of education. Nor is he a misinformed person in need of correction. He’s simply acting and speaking (and thinking and living) in bad faith.
We’ve been trained to never accept such a possibility. Our initially commendable notions of “civility” have gotten warped into some weird notion that bad faith and lies can exist only as theoretical abstract possibilities, and thus that we should never acknowledge their presence even when it is undeniable. I wrote about this earlier this year (“Jumping away from conclusions is a Bad Thing“), discussing the sniffling response that inevitably comes whenever one has the audacity to reach the necessary conclusion that someone is acting in bad faith:
It’s like deciding beforehand that you’ll never accuse anyone of cheating at cards even if they’re holding 93 aces in a game of five-card stud. It’s not good because it’s not accurate — it’s not true.
This is where the half-clever always half-cleverly start to talk about mind-reading. You can’t read minds! You don’t know what’s in that person’s heart! There are a million other possibilities — mistaken, confused, misinformed, a victim of deception themselves, etc. etc. etc. — and you’re not God or the Shadow and you can never, ever know with adequate certainty what anyone else’s intention is when they repeat demonstrable falsehoods even directly in the face of incontrovertible evidence!
It’s all inscrutable and unknowable and mysterious, they say. So just pay up, because their six aces beats your two pair.
Twitter dude is not alone. This attempt to “win” or “score points” via disingenuous, bad-faith assertions can be measured in a host of public opinion polls taken over the past several decades. Many people — a significant share of the overall population — do not respond to pollsters’ questions about what they think or believe by actually saying what they really think or believe to be true. Instead, they respond by saying whatever it is they imagine will game the system to make the poll results seem like a “win” for their team.
This is why, for example, more than a quarter of people surveyed after the catastrophic 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico said that the spill made them more likely to support unregulated offshore drilling. It’s why polls routine find statistically significant support for absurdly ridiculous claims and howlingly false propositions that run counter to mountains of unanimously recognized evidence.
We read such polls and we ask, “How could anybody believe such a thing?”
The answer is that they don’t. No one does. Not really, not in good faith. They provide such perversely stupid answers to pollsters’ questions not because they believe such things, or because they are even slightly convinced that such things are — in any meaningful way — “true,” but simply in an effort to score points for their team.
Twitter dude is Team Trump. This is his identity, his self-concept, his source of meaning. And so Team Trump must always be winning, be proven exceptional in every way. Thus, even when the team is doing something as unremarkable as saying “Merry Christmas” in December, it has to be reframed and reinterpreted as something bold, unprecedented, and heroic. That requires Twitter dude to pretend that such a mundane thing really is unprecedented — that no previous president ever wished anyone “Merry Christmas” in December.
Does he really believe that? Of course not. How could he? No one could achieve actually believing that. But he needs it to be “true” so he repeats it. And his team leader needs it to be true, so he says it too.
They’re not lying, Trump and Twitter dude. They’re repeating falsehoods that they know to be false, but it’s not quite the same thing as a lie. It’s far, far worse than that.