Origins of the white lie

In the wake of recently discovered unmarked graves of indigenous children, at state-sponsored residential schools run by churches, there has been much discussion lately about attitudes and practices of colonialism in Canada. Hardly institutions of learning, these were indoctrination centres serving cultural genocide. It is politically correct now to look back with revulsion, as though we now live in a different world. Should we be so smug? After all, the last Indian residential school closed only twenty-five years ago.

What is particularly horrifying—and yet perplexing—is the prospect that many of the people running these schools (and the government officials who commissioned them) probably felt they were doing the right thing in “helping” indigenous children assimilate into white society. Apart from cynical land-grabbing and blatant racism, many in government may have thought themselves well-motivated, and the school personnel may have been sincerely devout. Yet, the result was malicious and catastrophic. There were elements of the same mean-spirited practices in English boarding schools and ostensibly charitable institutions. Nineteenth-century novels depict the sadism in the name of character formation, discipline and obedience, which were supposed to prepare young men and women for their place in society. How is it possible to be mean and well-meaning at the same time?

Certainly, “the white man’s burden” was a notion central to colonialism. It is related to the European concept of noblesse oblige, which was an aspect of the reciprocal duties between peasant and aristocrat in medieval society. The very fact that such class relationships (between the lowly and their betters) persist even today is key to the sort of presumption of superiority illustrated by the residential schools. Add to class the element of race, then combine with religious proselytizing, empire and greed, and you have a rationale for conquest. The natives were regarded suspiciously as ignorant savages who made no proper use of their land and “resources.” Their bodies were raw material for slavery and their souls for conversion. All in the name of civilizing “for their own good.” Indeed, slavery was a global institution from time immemorial, practiced in Canada as well as the U.S., and practiced even by indigenous natives themselves.

In view of the Spanish Inquisition in the European homeland, it cannot be too surprising that the conquistadors applied similar methods abroad. The fundamental religious assumption was that the body has little importance compared to the soul. In the medieval Christian context, it was self-evident that the body could be mistreated, tortured, even burnt alive for the sake of the soul’s salvation. According to contemporary accounts, the conquistadors committed atrocities in a manner intended to outwardly honor their religion: natives hanged and burned at the stake—in groups of thirteen as a tribute to Christ and his twelve apostles! The utter irony and perversity of such “logic” has more recent parallels and remains just as possible today.

The Holocaust applied an intention to keep society pure by eliminating elements deemed undesirable. Eugenics was a theme of widespread interest in early twentieth century, not only in Nazi Germany. Hannah Arendt argued controversially that the atrocities were committed less by psychopathic monsters than by ordinary people who more or less believed in what they were doing, if they thought about it deeply at all. In the wake of WW2, interest was renewed in understanding how such things can happen in the name of nationalism, racial superiority, or some other captivating agenda. In particular: to understand how unconscionable behavior is internally justified. The psychological experiments of Stanley Milgram, about obedience to authority, shed light on the banality of evil, by showing how easy it is for people to commit acts of torture when an authority figure assures them it is necessary and proper. The underlying question remains: how to account for the disconnect between common sense (or compassion or morality) and behavior that can later (or by others) be judged patently wrong? By what reasoning do people justify their evil deeds so that they appear to them acceptable or even good?

Self-deception seems to be a general human foible, part and parcel of the ability to deceive others. It can be deliberate, even when unconscious. Or, it can be incidental, as when we simply do not have conscious access to our motives. Organisms, after all, are cobbled together by natural selection in a way that coheres only enough to insure survival. The ego or rational mind, too, is a cobbled feature, cut off from access to much of the organism’s workings, with which it would not be adaptive for it to directly interfere. The conscious self is charged by society to produce behavior in accord with social expectations, yet is poorly equipped as an organ of self-control.

Biology is no excuse, of course, especially since our highest ideals aspire to transcend biological limitations. Yet, a brief digression may shed some light. The primary aim of every organism is its own existence. Life, by definition, is self-serving; yet our species is characteristically altruistic toward those recognized as their own kind. The human organism discovered reason as a survival strategy. It has surrounded itself with tools, machines, factories and institutions that serve some purpose other than their own existence. As seemingly rational agents in the world, we try to shape the world in certain ways that nevertheless fit our needs as organisms. Thus, we purport to act according to some rational program, even for the good of others or society, but which often turns out to be self-serving or serving our specific group. The disconnect is a product of evolutionary history. We aspire and purport to be rational, but we were not rationally designed.

Hypocrisy literally means failing to be (self-)critical enough. The context of that failing is that we believe we are acting in accordance with one agenda and do not see how we are also acting in accordance with a very different one. We think we are pursuing one aim and fail to recognize another aim inconsistent with it. Deaf to the dissonance, the right hand (hemisphere?) knows not what the left is doing. A person, group, or class behaves according to their interests, and believes some story that justifies their entitlement, to themselves and to others. The cover story is somehow made to jive with other motivations behind it. What is supposedly objective fact is molded to fit subjective desire.

As social creatures, we tend to look to others for clues to how we should behave. But that is a self-fulfilling prophecy when everyone else is doing likewise. There must be some way to weigh action that is not based on social norm. This is the proper function of reason, argument, debate, and social criticism. It is not to convince others of a point of view, but to find what is wrong with a point of view (no matter how good-sounding) and hopefully set it right. In particular, it should reveal how one intention can be inconsistent with another intention that lurks at its core, just as the whole structure of the brain lurks beneath the neo-cortex. Reason ought to reveal internal inconsistency and the self-deception that permits it.

Yet, self-deception is a concomitant of the ability to deceive others, which is built into our primate heritage and the structure of language. Society can only cohere through cooperation, and there must be ways to tell the cooperators from the defectors in society. Reputation serves this function. But reputation is an image in people’s minds that can be manipulated and faked. As any actor can tell you, the best way to make your performance emotionally convincing is to believe it yourself. If your story is a lie, then you too must believe the lie if you expect to convince others of your sincerity. Furthermore, deception of the others dovetails with their willingness to be deceived—namely, their own self-deceptions.

We know that people consciously create acts of fiction and fantasy; also, that they sometimes knowingly lie. Self-deception overlaps these categories: fiction that we convince ourselves is fact. Rationally, we know that opinions—when expressed as such—are someone’s thoughts. But the category of fact renounces this understanding in favor of an objective truth that has no author, requires no evidence, and for which no individual is responsible, unless God. We disown responsibility for our statements by failing to acknowledge them as personal assertions and beliefs, instead proposing them offhand as free-standing truths in the public domain.

Religion, patriotism, and cultural myth are not about reason or factual truth, but about social cohesion and soothing of existential anxiety through a sense of belonging. We trust those who seem to think and act like us. But this is a double-edged sword. It makes towing a line a condition of membership in the group. Controlling the behavior of members helps the group cohere, but does not allow for a control on the behavior of the group itself.

Scientific propositions can be pinned down and disproven, but not so cultural myths and biases, nor religious beliefs, which cannot even be unambiguously comprehended, let alone debunked in a definitive way. Like water for the fish, the ethos of a society’s prejudices cannot easily be perceived. As Scott Atran has observed, “…most people in our society accept and use both science and religion without conceiving of them in a zero-sum conflict. Genesis and the Big Bang theory can perfectly well coexist in a human mind.” Perhaps that foible is a modern sign that we have not outgrown the capacity for self-deception, and thus for evil.