Donald Trump tells numerous easily disprovable lies: an average of 3 false or misleading claims per day for the first 100 days of his presidency. But his followers don’t seem to care. I have not been surprised that this technique of telling numerous bald lies works. I’ve long thought of these utterances as “tribal truths,” and I’ve seen it all my life, especially in the areas of politics and religion.
How can it be that a religious leader is not boo’d off the stage upon claiming that dead people can become alive again, that a virgin could have a baby or that there is a non-physical invisible man who created the physical universe. These are factually ridiculous, entirely lacking in any scientific evidence. Yet people give homage to these ideas, sing songs about them once per week and claim to base their personal moralities upon such religious “truths.” The fact that these claims relate to tribal impulses is easily seen: religious folks take these claims seriously when they are in church or when surrounded by friendly believers who invoke religiosity. When they are out and about in the real world, they don’t mention these things and, in fact, look rather embarrassed when I raise these topics in a gentle sensitive way.
Tribal truths are not claims about the physical world. Rather, they get their power from expensive signalling, declarations that inform others in the tribe that everything is well within the tribe. The inner thoughts are unspoken and unconscious, but if articulated, they would be expressed something like this: “I am so dedicated to this tribe that I am willing to say church-approved untrue things out loud, even though these are statements that would subject me to ridicule from people who are not members of the tribe.” The other tribe members respond with actions that, if they were conscious and articulated, would go something like this: “Thank you for that expensive signalling. It is difficult to say ridiculous things like this with a straight face, but we appreciate it an accept it as an offering that the tribe is important to you and that you are willing to take one for the team.”
I just learned another term for my personal phrase “tribal truths”: :Blue Lies.” I learned this term today from an article in Scientific American, by Jeremy Adam Smith, “How the Science of “Blue Lies” May Explain Trump’s Support.” Here is an excerpt from the article:
Journalists and researchers have suggested many answers, from hyper-biased, segmented media to simple ignorance on the part of GOP voters. But there is another explanation that no one seems to have entertained. It is that Trump is telling “blue” lies—a psychologist’s term for falsehoods, told on behalf of a group, that can actually strengthen the bonds among the members of that group. . . .
Blue lies are a different category altogether, simultaneously selfish and beneficial to others—but only to those who belong to your group. As University of Toronto psychologist Kang Lee explains, blue lies fall in between generous white lies and selfish “black” ones. “You can tell a blue lie against another group,” he says, which makes it simultaneously selfless and self-serving. “For example, you can lie about your team’s cheating in a game, which is antisocial, but helps your team.”
A 2008 study demonstrated that “children become more likely to endorse and tell blue lies as they grow older.” And we indoctrinate children through mass media: “children grow up hearing stories of heroes who engage in deception and violence on behalf of their in-groups.” Lying has never been a problem when committed by a member of your own ingroup. Smth explains that we are intensely social beings who divide ourselves into tribes. When we do this, “we open the door to competition, dehumanization, violence—and socially sanctioned deceit.”
Blue lies are a mixed bag:
It’s in blue lies that the best and worst in humanity can come together. They reveal our loyalty, our ability to cooperate, our capacity to care about the people around us and to trust them. At the same time, blue lies display our predisposition to hate and dehumanize outsiders, and our tendency to delude ourselves.
David Sloan Wilson has discussed blue lies, using different nomenclature. I wrote about this in 2011. Wilson carefully distinguished factual realism from practical realism. Long ago I concluded that there are beliefs that are important, critically important to survival, but not literally true. It is also clear that the intellect will warp itself to believe something that serves a deep, sometimes ineffable, function even though the belief is literally and demonstrably false. This phenomenon comports with D.S. Wilson’s distinction: A belief is factually realistic when it accurately describes what’s really out there. A belief is practically realistic when it causes the believer to behave adaptively in the real world. Though many of us skeptics love science and long for objective truth, practical realism can also be “a good thing,” because
Most of us presumably also want to live in happy, healthy, thriving communities. If there is an unavoidable trade-off between factual and practical realism, that would place us all in a moral dilemma. Atheists such as myself are banking on the possibility it we can have our cake and eat it too; that factual realism can contribute to rather than detracting from practical realism. We need to be clear about our own articles of faith.
Factual realism is not always at odds with practical realism. A hunter who needs to make a kill in order to eat in order to help his clan survive, also needs to know “the exact location of his quarry.” It is critically important to recognize that
[O]ur minds are prepared to massively depart from factual realism, when necessary, in ways that motivate effective action. This is not a sign of mental weakness but a time-tested survival strategy. Moreover, adaptive fictions are not restricted to religions. Patriotic histories of nations have the same distorted and purpose driven quality as religions, a fact that becomes obvious as soon as we consider the histories of nations other than our own. Intellectual movements such as feminism and postmodernism are often shamelessly open about yoking acceptable truths to perceived consequences. That’s what it means to be politically correct. Scientific theories are not immune. Many scientific theories of the past become weirdly implausible with the passage of time, just like religions. When this happens, they are often revealed is not just wrong but as purpose driven. . . . These and other belief systems are not classified as religions because they don’t invoke supernatural agents, but they are just like religions when they sacrifice factual realism on the altar of practical realism. The presence or absence of supernatural agents–a particular departure from factual realism–is just a detail. It is humbling to contemplate that the concerns typically voiced about religion need to be extended to virtually all forms of human thought. If anything, nonreligious belief systems are a greater cause for concern because they can do a better job of masquerading as factual reality. Call them stealth religions.
Smith suggests some possibilities for reversing this onslaught of blue lies from Trump and his supporters. Perhaps some conservatives will call him out on some of the lies, but that might be whistling in the dark. In the meantime, we should all do our best to fight the lies with careful and clear explanations for why the lies are, indeed, lies, according to Smith.
This approach is important, but I would offer another option: Those on the left are spew out ample blue lies of their own, many of them pointed out by Bernie Sanders (though the lies on the political right are far more rampant at the moment). I also suspect that the lies on the left and the right are equal and opposite reactions to each other. It is my suspicion that they cause each other.
We all need to be less tribal. We need to call out blue lies regardless of who tells these lies. We need to get used to biting the hand that feeds us, repeatedly. That is the only way our conversation will get any traction from our opponents. We also need to form closer social and personal bonds with those with whom we disagree. As Jonathan Haidt has argued, we need to expose ourselves intimately to the ideas of those with whom we disagree–we might actually learn a thing or two.
We need to have better quality conversations with those with whom we disagree. We can do this by working hard to understand the concerns of those with whom we disagree. We should work hard to see the world the way their opponents do (and to encourage our opponents to do the same), which will often allow us to see that their fears and hopes are often sincere.
To the extent we are courageous enough to do that, perhaps we can lower the temperature a bit, melt the ice and begin once again to bring common pools of facts back to our conversations.