If you’re going to tell lies, what’s your justification?

We all get used to the idea of little white lies; of resorting to minor dishonesty to smooth over social difficulties. Saying ‘I’m so sorry we can’t come to the party, I’m coming down with some sort of cold and I wouldn’t want to spread it around’. When actually, it’s just been an exhausting week at work and we’d much rather spend Saturday night on our own sofa with a movie on Netflix. Okay, it’s fudging the truth but surely that’s better than causing needless offence?

But where do we draw the line? How far will we go, insisting that the ends will justify the means? I first recall this debate during the ‘Operation Countryman’ investigations into the UK’s Metropolitan Police in the late 1970s. Among the allegations made was the police fabricating evidence, justifying this on the grounds that the crook in question might not be guilty of this particular charge but he had got away with so many other crimes that fitting him up for this one was serving justice regardless. Or that these people were so obviously guilty, even if no one could prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, that the police just gave the prosecution a helping hand by burying something that undermined their case. Wrongdoing for the greater good is excusable, surely? It’s even got a special name now; ‘noble cause corruption’. Just try that phrase on for size a few times. Noble cause corruption. Isn’t it seductive? We all want to think we’re doing something noble. Except, as so many cases have shown, the consequences can be appalling miscarriages of justice. Who’s left feeling so noble once those truths come out?

What has this got to do with storytelling? Well, as the writing cliché goes, conflict is the essence of drama. Writing epic fantasy across four series of novels, I’ve set up my heroes and heroines with all manner of conflicts; murderous sneak-thieves, brutal invaders, arrogant nobles waging war to serve selfish ambitions, and renegade wizards threatening everyone’s peace. In all these stories, a broad array of characters are all serving the greater good with courage, guile and their quick wits. Granted, there’s deception and misdirection involved but that’s understandable and excusable. Noble, even.

Artwork & layout by Ben Baldwin
Artwork & layout by Ben Baldwin

But what if we take this one step further? What if the truth about something is so dangerous, if the consequences of it being revealed are so horribly dangerous, that bare-faced lies must be told to conceal it? Where’s the heroism in deliberately upholding something you know to be calculatedly false? What if those who discover this truth must be silenced by whatever means prove necessary? Where’s the heroism in using violence and threats to coerce innocent bystanders who’ve accidentally stumbled onto a secret? How does someone convince themselves that this sort of behaviour is in any sense noble? If they can’t, but they still have no choice but to act this way, what will that crisis of conscience mean for them? How corrosive will those lies be for their soul? This is the tension that underpins the Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom.

Not that I consciously realised this, when I started writing these stories back in 2008. But that’s the thing about fantasy fiction. It has an uncanny knack of reflecting the world we live in right back at us.

We need to talk about lies, because we live in a world where the celebrity-obsessed rolling-news media are so seduced by ideas of ‘narrative’ that they persist in fitting ‘breaking news’ events into a pre-existing framework before even half the facts are known. When inconvenient facts emerge later, proving something significantly different happened, the truth will struggle to catch the lies which have already gone round the world.

We need to talk about lies, because we live in a world where ‘reality’ TV no longer means documentaries bringing harsh truths into the light but ‘scripted’ and ‘constructed’ entertainments masquerading as real life. Somehow all this has become normalised, even acceptable, even as it colours attitudes and reinforces dangerous prejudices about religion, unemployment, poverty and black and minority ethnic issues.

We need to talk about lies, because we live in a world where massively significant political victories are currently being won by people who tell deliberate and calculated lies. People who just shrug and carry on lying when the truth is waved in their face. Why are they doing this? Because those liars are getting their reward when those desperate and disadvantaged people who desperately want to believe those lies are voting for the lies not the truth. Because, to take just one example currently applicable to the UK and US, the lie of ‘vote for me/my plan and I’ll bring those old jobs back’ is quicker to tell and easier to swallow than a detailed explanation of decades of economic and industrial change which means those jobs are gone beyond recall and creating alternatives requires focused investment, hard work and new thinking.

What’s our excuse for letting such lies go unchallenged? We’re not trying to keep out the monsters from a shadow realm. In our world, allowing these lies to take over means the monsters get a hold over us all.

4 comments

  1. Brilliant post, and I couldn’t agree more.

    It seems strangely appropriate that fiction may well be the most effective way of tackling the untruth than supposedly ‘factual’ news, which so often not only swallows the lie hook, line and sinker, but even perpetuates it. As a historian, I’m constantly reminded of Goebbels and the “Big Lie” theory of the 1920s and 30s – tell a lie big enough and often enough, and the masses will believe it. Boy, was he terrifyingly correct. That it is happening before our eyes in the age of mass media, in countries that are supposedly beacons of liberalism, sickens me to the core.

    But the Weimar Republic in post-WWI Europe was considered to be a beacon of liberalism too… And the trouble with liberalism is that it is tolerant of philosophies that set out to exploit it for darker ends.

    Consciously or not, I’m finding these themes cropping up in my own writing too, alongside the challenges of mass migration and the rejection of ‘other’, often by the building of physical barricades. Our world that seemed to be on an inexorable path of integration and globalisation has been stopped in its tracks. As an artist, I feel a duty to voice my concern about this as you do.

  2. Agree wholeheartedly about the rolling news, and will add that there is also the pressure for any given news company to be first to break the story. Which means some don’t fact check much before they broadcast it, preferring to retract/redact later. Hence the journalists’ joke: Sky News – never wrong for long!

    I do however struggle with the concept of a truth so dangerous that ANY given person would have to coerce and murder other people to keep it secret. Because that kind of implies that any sane person who finds out the truth will realise it should be hidden and joins the conspiracy without a qualm. Silly example: if you chant “Ia! Ia! Cthulhu ftagn!” in Waterstones on Valentine’s Day, the planet will explode. Only a tiny minority of the 7 billion people on Earth will immediately head to Waterstones on Feb 14th…

    Note to Self: put Juliet’s book further up the To Read pile to find out the horrible truth!

    1. I hadn’t heard that Sky News joke – I like it! 🙂

      And yes, in the real world, secrets so deadly are hard to imagine. In fiction, on the other hand…

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