Disturbing Angles on Truth, Meta-Truth, and Lies

Glendale, California
Sunday, June 25, 2017



Disturbing Angles on Truth, Meta-Truth, and Lies

When patients present for psychoanalytic psychotherapy, their psychoanalysts take them at their word.

You say your mother was terrible?

Perhaps she was; perhaps she wasn’t.

You complain of an insensitive husband?

Perhaps he is; perhaps he isn’t.

Only time, exploration, and discussion will tell. Finding the “truth” always proves difficult; finding the definitive truth is, well, impossible.

Alternatively, and as psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas argues, psychoanalytic psychotherapists get paid to not take patients at their word. His book, co-written with a lawyer, warns of the dangers of the various psychotherapist reporting laws.

For example, should  psychotherapists always issue a Tarasoff report (a duty to warn) when a patient expresses homicidal feelings towards a friend? Of course not. They must find intent, means, and specific plan before doing so.

Since 2016, the question of truth has emerged, on a global scale, as a more significant and disturbing phenomenon. After extensive research and discussion, the Oxford Dictionaries declared the word post-truth as the 2016 word of the year.

How disturbing.

We all make false statements, believing them to be true, only to find out later they were false. However, a falsehood is not necessarily a lie. Sometimes it just indicates a belief awaiting correction, clarification or understanding.

Harold Evans, in his recent book on writing, privileges credibility as well as clarity. He fears that Trump advisor Steve Bannon’s considering the media the opposition risks all journalistic stories being considered “polluted by bias.”

Evans suggests millions of Trump supporters care little about the truth. He describes David Frum’s explorations of Trump’s lies in the February 2017 edition of The Atlantic. His piece studies Trump’s tweet attacking the University of California. Frum noted the tweet was “precisely the opposite of the truth” but nonetheless became “dogma in the Trump world, including Trump-skeptical conservatives.”

During September 2016, the NY Times created a stir by calling out lies, publishing the headline:

Donald Trump Clung To Birther Lie for Years, and Still Isn’t Apologetic

Evans describes how the NYT editor, Dean Baquet, knew the newspaper’s use of the word lie had “powerful implications.” He defines a lie as follows:

A lie is uttered with complete, total knowledge of its falsehood. 

Roget’s Thesaurus offers a plethora of adjectives: downright lies, shameless lies, monstrous lies, outright lies, filthy lies, dirty lies, big lies. If desperate, we can draw from what Evans calls “the vocabulary of absurdity: codswallop, bullshit, balderdash.”

Lawrence Douglas, a law professor at Amhesrt College, coined the word, meta-lie, to describe insidious untruths intended to subvert the way we think of institutions that expose lies, errors, and corruption, namely the media, academia, and the judiciary.

Hannah Arendt, the philosopher and student of Heidegger, worries these types of lies, which she calls political lies, provide stepping stones to authoritarian governments. She writes:

The political lie opens the door to a politics that not only denies facts but works actively to disempower facts, thus enabling the creation of a coherent albeit fictitious world.

Welcome to the political, even journalistic world of our era.

When watching or reading journalistic media, you might consider news originating from Reuters as reliable. Their reporters, covering stories in more than one hundred countries, are bound by the Reuters Trust Principles to report “fairly and honestly by doggedly gathering hard-to-get information — and by remaining impartial.”

No self-congratulation intended, but this is the kind of truth sought by psychoanalysts in the privacy of their consulting rooms.

Sadly, these truths only affect one person at a time.

These persons, and others empowered by their understanding of what truth means, will hopefully counter forces — active in our culture today — which could well indicate the start of a slippery slope towards totalitarianism.

Primo Levi, victim and scholar of the Holocaust, responds to a question of why German citizens did not heed earlier causes to action with this:

Why aren’t you taking action now?

Take action.



Arendt, H. (1973). The origins of totalitarianism. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Bollas, C. and Sundelson, D. (1996). The new informants. New York: Aronson.

Evans, H. (2017). Do I make myself clear? Why writing well matters. New York: Little, Brown, and Co.

Levi, P. (1995). Survival in Auschwitz. New York: Touchstone.

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