Psychologist and therapist Emmy van Deurzen argues that, beyond the lies and propaganda around Brexit, something more dangerous may be at play – self-deception.
Plato said: “There is nothing worse than self-deception when the deceiver is at home and always with you.”
Most people in Britain would agree that it is a terrible thing to be deceived in your own home, in your own country.
We are tired of the deception we have experienced for the past three years. It has become harrowing to many of us to feel we can no longer trust our politicians and our media. It has become obvious that spin and hype have spun out of control and have turned into full-blown mendacity.
The more successful a liar is, the more likely it is that he will fall prey to his own fabrications.Hannah Arendt
The most recent example is the Government re-interpreting local election results – where Remain parties systematically gained and Leave parties consistently lost seats – as evidence of people wanting them to get on with Brexit. This seems so obviously wrong and outrageous that it is hard to deal with.
The experience is very similar to meeting someone in the middle of a psychotic delusion, who tells you something so outrageous that you temporarily lose your own bearings. It seems to us as if there is profound dishonesty at work. We cannot trust what we are told any longer. It is disorientating and somewhat maddening.
But, may there be a different explanation for what is happening? May these deceptive politicians actually believe their own words? Might they be deluded instead of fraudulent: self-deceived instead of disingenuous?
Hannah Arendt, who studied the national socialists who committed crimes during the Holocaust, concluded that: “The more successful a liar is, the more likely it is that he will fall prey to his own fabrications.”
This is not as strange as you might think. There is a vast research literature on self-deception and there are many well-documented cases of parents continuing to believe their children to be drug-free when they are openly using in front of them, or spouses continuing to believe in their partner’s faithfulness when everyone else can plainly see that they are playing the field.
The battle of competing beliefs in a person can easily be settled by falling in line with what is most practical or what they most desire to be the case. Sometimes, we call this wishful thinking. Sartre called it living in ‘bad faith’ and thought it was very much part of human reality.
It is well demonstrated that those who have a higher opinion of themselves often fare better and become more successful than those who are inclined to be modest. In times of crisis, they may fall back onto their capacity for self-flattery and self-reassurance, using bombastic and self-aggrandising tactics. It would not be hard to illustrate this contention with many examples from the past three years in British politics.
The Hole in Reality
With each lie that we are told, our lives become a little less safe. “Each lie, as falsehood, creates a hole in the fabric of reality,” Hannah Arendt said – and we are feeling that sense of unreality greatly. For some people, the hole in reality is all too obvious.
Few of us, whether Leavers or Remainers, knew enough about the EU in 2016 to really understand the issues properly. When Brexiters told us that the EU was undemocratic, bureaucratic and elitist, we became defensive or fell silent and some of us actually believed it.
We are faced with a referendum that has been officially declared as unreliable. We know that it would have been annulled by now if it had been binding, but because it was only advisory it cannot be voided. A re-think and re-count are needed desperately in the face of the change of opinion of the British public, with the latest poll indicating that 61% of Brits now want to remain in the European Union.
Faced with so many contradictions, most people feel that reason and rationality are no longer in evidence.
The nurses and doctors in the NHS who are trying to make up for 50,000 vacancies are out of hope and energy.
We should keep our eyes firmly on that target: to re-establish reason and truth in our country.
The teachers who have to beg parents to contribute to basic school facilities feel likewise aggrieved, exhausted and discouraged.
The 3.5 million EU27 citizens in the UK who have to apply for ‘settled status’, lest they may become illegal aliens and be removed from the country, are at their wits end after living in limbo for more than one thousand days.
They used to own their homes and have their jobs in Britain like anyone else and now suddenly they have to be grateful to apply to stay, whilst losing many significant rights, such as voting in local elections or being able to take their residency in the UK for granted.
From Absurdities to Atrocities
This is what happens in totalitarian states: the government takes away your freedom and human rights one bit at a time, lowering your expectations and getting you used to cruelty and ill-treatment.
The lying is part of the confusion that is deliberately created. Once deprived of the facts, we lose our moral compass and sense of direction. The lies become their own raison d’etre and a new independent reality.
None of us can live without the touch stone of truth and reality for long without becoming alienated. Truth “metaphorically is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us,” Hannah Arendt said.
So, we should keep our eyes firmly on that target: to re-establish reason and truth in our country. Exposing the lies, and releasing those in power from their self-deceptions, has now become essential to our future survival.