The Superior Lie: A Review of The Deceptive Activist, Steve Breyman

SERRC —  October 16, 2017 — Leave a comment

Author Information: Steve Breyman, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, breyms@rpi.edu

Breyman, Steve. “The Superior Lie: A Review of The Deceptive Activist.Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 36-38.

The pdf of the article includes specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Ox

Please refer to:

Image credit: Irene Publishing

Brian Martin’s work is unique among scholars in Science and Technology Studies. He is not bashful about the sort of world he prefers, and steers his inquiries directly into hotly contested public controversies. From scientific struggles over the cause of HIV/AIDS to the theoretical best form of democracy, Martin weighed in. Sure, many of us wear our hearts on our sleeves; his scholarship—spread over sixteen books and hundreds of articles—has a practical, applied bent exceedingly rare among academics in any field.

The Deceptive Activist—Martin’s latest—is scrupulously documented, and an excellent example of his signature easy style. The book is highly readable, and flows smoothly. Sensibly constructed, Martin’s arguments and evidence are complex and sophisticated; there are no easy answers to be found here.

Civically Relevant Dissembling

This is not Brian Martin’s first foray into political lying (the subject of a 2014 article; access his work here). His aim this time around: “to highlight the tensions around activism, openness and honesty” (3). The stuff of the book is a veritable primer on all manner of civically relevant dissembling. Chapters 2 and 3 provide a typology of lies, from the everyday to the official. He discusses the difference between openness and honesty, and includes lies of omission. Withholding the truth may in some cases be as damaging as a bald-faced lie. I was once bound by a strictly enforced “honor code” and it carved out space for ‘socially acceptable’ lies. Martin naturally includes those “little white lies” too.

The stakes matter. Official deception is worse than individual deception because officials have more power. This includes lying by police (expressly permitted by criminal courts in United States). While generally preferring openness and honesty, it’s OK to lie to save human lives. Martin includes a timely discussion of “sock puppets” (people pretending they’re someone else on line) given a young Swede’s infiltration of fascist groups in Europe and the US.

While Martin does not directly address “fake news,” he provides an interesting and useful typology of propaganda. Martin dissects the varieties of government propaganda, explaining how politicians employ public relations specialists to twist and manipulate information conveyed to voters. The book includes a road map for uncovering official deception—devised to reduce outrage—using the notorious Nazi T4 euthanasia program as example. We learn to be cautious about public scandals given that some are manufactured by the political enemies of the politician in question. This may be a variety of “fake news” after all. Along the way, we learn never to trust authorities when they claim not to be influenced by social movements working hard to pressure them.

We’re introduced to various sorts of self-deception, including the collective sort Martin assigns to scientists who still push the public perception of their profession as value-free, objective and dispassionate. Martin understands that his thorough cataloging of the universe of lies could easily lead some to become cynical and reject everything that comes out of the mouths of corporate chieftains and politicians. To guard against over-skepticism, he provides a manual for lie detection in Chapter 4.

It’s virtually impossible for most of us to use visual cues to detect lies (US Secret Service agents appear reasonably good at it); Martin has us instead look at a speaker’s record, and a number of other clues summarized in Table 4.1 (64). It’s a helpful list that I wish American journalists had to hand during the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq when official mendacity ran amok.

Donald Trump’s brazen disregard for truth requires no guide to expose. One need only unearth an earlier tweet or previous statement that directly contradicts the current claim, an easy task. Americans may yet again have cause to use Martin’s clues in the future should we ever return to the normal regime of lies tougher to detect. The dawning of the post-truth era in a growing number of country’s politics does not excuse us from seriously grappling with the issues raised in the book.

Martin would have us view truth-telling as one virtue among others, and he shows how it sometimes clashes with the others. But there are times when telling the truth gets one in trouble as Martin shows with several examples where Gandhi’s truth-telling was exploited first by the British, then the Japanese (97-100). Martin conjures several scenarios where lying is superior to the truth and counsels against an absolutist position. He believes a relativist position morally superior to absolutism as it can prevent violence and other harms. His case studies (Chapter 6) end up making a good case for situational ethics and contingent morality.

Honesty and Lies

Activists ought to discuss honesty within their groups thinks Martin. Interestingly, he compares the features for effective nonviolent action he identified in an earlier work to lying, and suggests that one may lie “nonviolently.” His examples range from the satire and provocation of The Yes Men, to the classic case of sheltering a refugee from the Nazis.

I’ve not confronted most of these same tensions around (dis)honesty in my own activism, and I don’t think many of us have. Why bother lying? The truth—defined as the overwhelming majority of the genuine, as opposed to “alternative,” facts—is on our side. This imbalance explains why we devote our time, energy and resources to civic engagement. It also explains why activists are big fans of sunshine laws and freedom of information statutes.

Martin asks whether direct action advocates should share their plans with the police, wondering whether failing to do so constitutes a lie of omission. He realizes at the same time that to do so might compromise the action in advance. The dilemma is generally not difficult to resolve. The activists have a specific goal in mind (to urge climate action, or stop a natural gas pipeline) and do not believe any means is justified to reach their end. And as with other forms of civil disobedience, participants are prepared to face the legal consequences of their action. Activists thus face the wrath of the state in either scenario, whether they divulge their plans or not. Should there be a “lie” here, it hurt no one and those who were party to it are held responsible for it.

Martin is concerned that corporations and the state are not alone in their efforts to manage and interpret information to serve their own purposes. Exaggeration and hype are certainly issues for progressive organizations. I receive communications from social movement organizations on a daily basis that could be said to be one-sided or overblown. Activists too engage in spin doctoring. They are, after all, advocates for a cause. This does not, of course, grant them a license to lie, and they likely should sometimes tone down their “messaging.” But these normal exaggerations are about tone or still uncertain consequences (of, for example, climate change) not about the science, the “truth,” underlying the initial worry. Nevertheless, in certain relatively rare circumstances—some of special concern to Martin who has written and acted broadly and deeply on whistleblowing—veritas is at stake.

Should whistleblowers see themselves as akin to those engaged in nonviolent direct action, where the latter courageously face the fallout from their actions? Such a stance would result in dire personal and professional consequences, despite the protections in place in several countries. Whistleblowers prefer their complaints be handled through formal channels, but will go to the news media should that fail or not be a realistic option (as in the case of Chelsea Manning). Martin joins many of the rest of us in seeing the Daniel Ellsbergs and Edward Snowdens not as deceptive activists but rather as heroes for taking such grave personal risks.

The book closes with a lessons learned chapter. Martin summarizes his lessons regarding honesty and openness. He’s never preachy, looks at all sides, and is cautious in his advice. His sound advice, however, overlooked an inescapable fact all activists must face: the truth matters in public life but who wins and who loses is determined not by right but by might.

References

Martin, Brian. The Deceptive Activist. Sparsnas, Sweden: Irene Publishing, 2017.

Nelson, Gregory. “Putting The Deceptive Activist into Conversation: A Review and a Response to Rappert.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 33-35.

Rappert, Brian. “Brian Martin’s The Deceptive Activist: A Review.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 52-55.

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