The psychology of a charlatan

The distinction between ideology and fraud is commonly asserted, but strikes me as false.

Both ideology and fraud are premised on the privileging of personal interest or feelings over a serious-minded respect for facts. Both sacrifice a respect for carefully considered facts to the desires of the ideologist or fraudster. Both represent moral failings with potentially grave consequences for others. Ideologists and fraudsters both become charlatans. That we cannot readily distinguish between ideology and fraud in nearly any case of charlatanism—ever—testifies to the fact that they are essentially the same. A charlatan is a charlatan. Whether ideology or fraud motivates him or her is a semantic distinction.

Ultimately, all fraudsters are necessarily ideologues: if only during the moment of deceit, the deceit must be believed by the deceiver to be absolutely convincing to others. And all ideologues are fraudsters: to believe something against all facts and reason requires the choice, if only implicit, to place the yearning for certainty over that for truth, i.e. to privilege something fake and whole over something real and fragmentary, to value deceit over truth.

To then communicate that self-deceit to others completes the loop: one deceives oneself with the full knowledge of the intention, then, to deceive others. In fact, this is strikingly similar to the above-described move that the fraudster makes: to force his or herself to believe, with the hope and expectation of being convincing to others.

No doubt self-deceit and knowledge of that self-deceit exist simultaneously, in a kind of oscillating dialectical relationship which is obscure to the deceiver. But, in one way, it is this very knowledge of self-deceit that drives yet more self-deceit: if one knows, even slightly, that one’s knowledge is incomplete or fragmentary, one doubles-down on the self-lie through denial, emotion, an act of will.

This is the act of the fundamentalist, the ideologue, the zealot.

However, this is too transparent to a thoughtful person to work so smoothly. Who wants to transparently believe that they reject all serious criticism, all reason, all apparent facts? For this act of rejection to be justifiable, for this strong emotional rejection of a reasonable argument or a contradiction to take place, the rejection of reason or criticism must be grounded in a moral duty: one must find ways in which lack of conviction is a moral weakness, and denial of reasonable arguments a moral virtue.

(This is what drives the moral frenzy of a suicide bomber: the suicide bombing is an act of will that overcomes all doubt and serves as proof of one’s faith. The doubling-down on the lie is sanctified by its morality.)

This is achieved by the belief that the facts themselves are immoral or corrupt. Reason itself (or the fake semblance thereof) comes to be regarded as a ruse (or act of incompetence) that only serves to conceal the truth. The mere words of the sophists, the false and idiotic statements of intellectuals, the lying of vapid wordsmiths. Appeals to reason and facts become appeals to lies and corruption. What was once appalling and irrational denialism, which is psychologically painful to many people, becomes a moral duty. What was once painful becomes thereby transmuted into the pleasant. This is the moral and psychological economy of denialism.

The “Real Truth” therefore becomes impenetrable to facts, since the reaction must always be the same: a moral, righteous act of denial that forecloses discussion.

Persons holding such an attitude are charlatans, frauds, and ideologues, all at once:

  1. Their views are based on a rejection of reality. Thus, they are ideological.
  2. This rejection of reality is based on self-deceit, which is intended to be communicated with others. Thus, they are fraudulent.
  3. This self-deceit is based on moral purpose, transmuting the immoral into the moral and fiction into fact.
  4. This self-deceit is communicated to others. Thus, they are charlatans.

This is why charlatans rarely recant, even when their reputations have fallen under the weight of their own lies. Why should they? They are, after all, right. Morally right. And since they are morally right, they are therefore also right about reality.

What could be more simple–and dishonest? The reason there is no difference between the fraudster and the ideologue is simple: lies are the lifeblood of any ideology, and the failure to refrain from telling such lies is the same as the failure to refrain from telling lies in general.

Often, we are hesitant to call someone with an opposing point of view a fraud. It stifles discussion. It is an ad hominem. It doesn’t address the real issue.

Another view, which I think is more correct, is that this norm itself is often used as an excuse for moral weakness in the face of evil. It is an unwillingness to commit to saying what we know is true. It is a commitment, at least implicitly, to appease the liar and avoid conflict.

It is easy to identify a charlatan: their unstinting, uncompromising refusal to engage in a serious and charitable way with views other than their own. Their lack of respect for other intelligent people. Their conspiracy mongering and consistent emotionality. Their lack of regard for evidence. Their intellectual inconsistency. Their relentless insistence over the course of years on ad hoc explanations when faced with countervailing evidence. Their contempt and even sometimes, their unseriousness.

Those who are intelligent but erratic or “creative” are not in the same category as such people. We all can distinguish between these types. We should talk about that distinction and apologize when we fail. And we must be charitable when we are at all unsure. But we also have the moral responsibility to make the distinction and make it openly where it is appropriate.

Just as we all have a strong thread of irrationality running through us, similarly we all have the capacity and often desire for deceit. Thus, even the deceiver, the fraud, the charlatan is not without possibility of redemption, because he or she is fundamentally like us. That is why, as an act of public education, it is important to call a spade a spade. To say who is lying and who is not is to clarify the situation to intelligent people–and even, possibly, to the liar who is in a position to reflect. It is important to be soft when mistakes are made–we all make them–but to be tough when these are repeated and the pattern of charlatanism seems to be fully in play. Engaging with charlatans as if they are serious people worthy of discussion is to ourselves participate in the lie that they seek to propagate. Being relentless in pointing out the lie undermines the lie through constant repetition, as surely as lies undermine the truth through the same such constant repetition.

It has been suggested that we live in some of the most polarized times in American history. This claim might be partly true, but it is also somewhat ignorant. Chernow tells many stories about how in the earliest days of this country, many of the most pre-eminent men had a seething hatred for one another, how there were cudgelings of political opponents on the House floor, and how a vice president once shot and killed the most distinguished advisor to America’s first president and advocate for the U.S. Constitution.

Those passions matched the stakes in a brand new country embarking on an unprecedented political experiment and in frequent crisis. Similarly, we too are in the midst of a grand, new social experiment called social media. On social media, lies have had the opportunity to flourish in the midst of a worsening economic, political, and environmental crisis. Dispassionate analysis, when appropriate, is critical. Likewise, invective and denunciation for the acts and words of those who would contribute to the chaos and do evil are likewise necessary.

Francis Fukuyama in interviews has pointed out that as European civilization grew and large-scale cities became an important part of life in the West, a new arrangement of social norms for the smooth functioning of civil society became necessary as impersonal interactions between strangers within these large cities became an integral (and new) part of the fabric of life. He claims that this process required centuries of negotiation and cultural innovation. (Norbert Elias’s classic text undertakes a similar analysis and was probably where Fukuyama derived his own views.) Fukuyama points out that we are probably in the midst of a similar such process with the advent of social media and the Internet.

Thus, this post proposes a way to think about this transformation of social life. Above all, I think that it is not enough to merely use social media, but also to think of ways that we could contribute to making it better.

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