Embracing Liars For Their Correct Lies

Perhaps the thing I find most unforgivable is lying. In the past, I’ve written that the one thing lost that cannot be regained is integrity, the belief that you can trust a person’s word to be true, or at least presented with the sincere belief that it’s true, even if it’s mistaken. I can tolerate mistakes. I can tolerate stupidity. Tolerating liars is another matter.

Am I a dinosaur? It appears that I may be, as Kat Rosenfeld writes about how the righteous no longer concern themselves with lies, per se, as long as the lies serve to allow them to feel virtuous about themselves.

Today, the collective horror at Frey’s deception feels like the product of a more innocent time, particularly when compared with the muted response to last week’s unmasking of his contemporary equivalent. Comedian and television personality Hasan Minhaj, an alumnus of The Daily Show, built his career on stories of the persecution he had faced as an Indian, Muslim son of immigrants in a post-9/11 America. But as outlined in a devastating report by New Yorker writer Clare Malone, his most popular material contained key omissions and barefaced lies.

The FBI informant who infiltrated Minhaj’s Muslim community and then reported his mosque to the authorities? Minhaj never met him. The hospitalisation of Minhaj’s daughter after someone mailed him an envelope full of a white mystery powder that could have been anthrax? Never happened. And the high school ex-girlfriend who accepted Minhaj’s invitation to prom, only to jilt him on her doorstep for racist reasons while her new (white) date slipped a corsage on her wrist? She had actually turned down Minhaj several days earlier, and this doorstep moment — upon which Minhaj more or less built his career — was a complete fabrication.

But Hasan Minhaj is a comedian, right? And nobody believes comedian’s stories are slavishly truthful, right? They take comedic license to make their stories funny or endearing, to make a point. Social commentary is nothing new for comedians. George Carlin and Richard Pryor were all about social commentary. Except they didn’t fabricate a persona that gave them credibility to be the embodiment of harm or to falsely convince the public to feel empathy and, in turn, better about themselves for being so wokely empathetic.

Of course, this is as intended. Minhaj isn’t a make-you-laugh-til-your-face-hurts comedian; he’s a Daily Show guy, a pundit with a slightly-better-than-average sense of humour, but one that is smug rather than silly. His audience isn’t there to laugh so much as enjoy the sensation of moral authority with a wink and a titter. And while Minhaj’s material works well enough on television, onstage it translates to something that is less stand-up comedy and more performance memoir.

The “trauma merchants,” as Kat calls them, aren’t selling truth, but moral superiority. And their audience is buying it like white women buying abuse at dinner with Saira Rao.

But today’s trauma merchants are ultimately better off than the hoax memoirists. The days in which audiences responded to lies like this with a sense of outrage and betrayal are over; if anything, the anger today is reserved for the person who interrupts a comfortable narrative with a bunch of pesky facts. Consider what happens, inevitably, whenever some bias-stroking outrage is exposed as a fraud — whether it’s Jussie Smollett, or kids identifying as cats, or a guy allegedly shrieking the N-word at a crowded sporting event. Instead of revising our priors, or even being relieved, we look for ways in which being wrong only goes to show how right we were. So, this story wasn’t true? Ah, well: this country is so racist, or sexist, or full of sexually depraved weirdos who want to secretly turn every kid into a trans-cat, that it could have been true, and that’s just as bad.

That it wasn’t true but could have been has replaced truth as the measure of what we value. There is no award for being honest, even when it cuts against our self-interest to be so. But lie to make yourself a victim and you’re adored with the “thoughts and prayers” of thousands, maybe even millions, of adoring fans who desperately want to prove their moral righteousness by sharing their empathy with another’s trauma, real or imagined.

And convenient lies are no more the exclusive domain of the woke than the absurd “Big Lie” still being sold to anyone stupid enough to believe it or willing to overlook such flagrant nonsense for their inability to accept that their Jesus-substitute is just another lying narcissist, shamelessly saying anything that serves his personal interest. But I digress.

But despite the fact that the prom story is emotionally resonant with many a teenage experience, there is still something weird — even, dare I say, appropriative — about claiming to have been a victim of something that didn’t happen, let alone making a living off it. On this front, Minhaj has less in common with the comedian who embellishes a wacky story for laughs, and more in common with the TikToker who scammed her followers out of thousands of dollars to treat a cancer she didn’t have. Minhaj has been dining out for years on that doorstep moment. He published it as an essay in Vanity Fair. He’s spoken about it countless times with reporters, never presenting it as anything but a first-person experience. And while it has become a fixture of his comedy over the years, when Minhaj first debuted this material, it wasn’t actually in a stand-up routine, but at a storytelling competition called The Moth.

As Kat explains, The Moth has only one rule, that the story told must be true. To dinosaurs, that rule mattered. Today, not so much, as long as the lie allows its adherents to bask in the warm glow of righteousness.

13 thoughts on “Embracing Liars For Their Correct Lies

  1. B. McLeod

    Perhaps the underlying premise is that it is legitimate to mislead people who are so stupid that they laud the liars as respectable and worthy people based on these lies. And so, Biden was at the top of his law class, was an activist in the civil rights movement, and visited ground zero the day after 9/11. No need to actually DO the things that will impress the morons. Just tell them you did.

  2. Elpey P.

    One of the untenable features of “hate crimes” is that the underlying justification for the concept means that people who make or knowingly repeat false claims about racial incidents are just as guilty of committing the hate crime component as someone accurately accused of a hate crime act. But society participates in the lie and often outright defends and justifies the perpetrator, while vilifying the patsy who objects or the observer who tells the truth about it. The news media thrives on this.

    The self-righteous will widely broadcast false narratives, messages of intimidation, or “harmful in any context” racial slurs if they can use them as weapons against someone they hate. Their supposed struggle against racism is the latest national myth, the New Western Hero for the 21st century. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

  3. Mark

    The argument is always the lie illustrates larger truths, just as fiction always has. That too is a lie. Fiction illustrates truths when it is based upon observed truths. For example, theory (narrative) would tell us that discrimination or unsafe working conditions are unreal, because they will be discovered, publicized, and would not use the best workers — or injure too many of the best workers. Thus, they do not exist. Fiction (the Jungle, for example), showed the day to day reality of workers.

    The point: in the past, fiction used the tools of fiction (composite characters, false names, etc) to show day to day reality. Today, lies cover-up reality to verify theory. Facts that undermine narrative are dismissed. Modern “theory” has far more in common with religion than it does with social reality and explanation. Guess we should expect that, because the most “scientific” of social theories is based upon a fiction – homoeconomus.

    Theories may provide partial insights into human behavior and reality. When and where they conflict with reality, they should either be altered or discarded. Today’s narratives simply ignore facts and reality when it intrudes – and often do so by saying reality is simply a social construct (by and large, that confuses communication theory with understanding reality, but no matter). Since there is only the truth that societies create and the “truth” the narrative supports is so self-evident, the theory must prevail. And so, “lies” and “lying” are merely perspectives or untruths. That is the case for the Trumpers and the racialists.

  4. Rengit

    This goes hand-in-hand with the post yesterday about DuVernay: there was an interview published very recently with Jan Wenner, of Rolling Stone fame, and he went on record as defending the UVA rape hoax story. His contention? Sure, some of the details were wrong, and they may have trusted some people that they shouldn’t have, but the broader story was true. The “broader story” being that campuses were failing to protect women from sexual assault. That was what mattered, not the little details like a freshman girl being gang raped by a specific frat while being ground into broken glass. So who cares that the frat and UVA administrator who Rolling Stone defamed won millions of dollars in judgments against Rolling Stone for publishing these untrue little details?

    Absolutely zero shame.

  5. Miles

    If it’s in service of the narrative, can it really be a lie, because the narrative cannot be questioned and so anything supporting it is true, even if there facts to support it are completely false.

    But more to the point, there are good lies and bad lies, divided just like everything else.

  6. cthulhu

    I think some of this is driven by the cult of the victim: the bigger the victim you can make yourself appear to be, the greater your status, at least in Cloud-Cuckoo-Land.

  7. Anonymous Coward

    Lying in the service of ideology has become endemic as journalists are now reporting “moral clarity ” instead of facts.

  8. KP

    Its just a fully expected result of democracy. In a monarchy or dictatorship there is no need to lie, those in power have power until they die, the bureaucrats below them have the same and the public like it or lump it.
    In a democracy every politician lies without qualms, for promising people what they want is the only way to get power, then repeat it every election. No-one seems worried by this, they vote according to the lies and ignore it when the lies are exposed. The next election is the same, they still haven’t got what they want, but just sit there listening to the lies and voting on them.
    Society accepts lies as normal, it pervades all life.

  9. Drew Conlin

    Some come by it , some never do, some don’t care, sadly some are incapable and some suffer but if fortunate they eventually come to know_ To thine own self be true

  10. Hal

    Hassan Minhaj has been revealed as a liar who made false claims about being mistreated by police, stood up by his prom date because he’s Muslim, receiving death threats, etc.

    He claims that the “emotional truth” is more important than the truth.

    I’m reminded of the preacher who, denying evolution, proclaimed; “They have the facts, but we have ‘the Truth’.”

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