On Big Lies

“Big lie propaganda is comparable to judo or ju jitsu, in which the victims own momentum and exertions are used to defeat him . . .” 

Department of the Army, Defense Against Enemy Propaganda (1963)

Big lies are designed to hoodwink little liars.  Big lies work because little liars wrongly suppose that all lies are like their own picayune fibs, and because little liars lack the imagination to conceive of falsehood on a grand scale.  Big lies work equally well on most honest men and women, since the lies these honest men and women pride themselves on not telling are, in most cases, picayune little lies.

I am not using the phrase little lies to indicate venial lies, or white lies.  A little lie can be a moral monstrosity.  I call a lie little when the deception has limited scope.  A little lie is the extemporaneous invention of a devious individual.  Little lies are told by little men who find themselves squirming in a tight spot.  They are plausibly banal (my car wouldn’t start, I overslept, I have a cold) and the little liar earnestly hopes that they will be forgotten as soon as he has slipped out of the tight spot.

A big lie is a sustained propaganda campaign.  Rather than being told by one little liar who is squirming in a tight spot, a big lie is told by a conspiracy of many people, many of whom do not know that they are lying.  Rather than being told in the hope that the lie will soon be forgotten, a big lie is told in the hope that it will long be remembered.  This is because a big lie is meant to permanently warp the understanding of those to whom it is told.

If an unfaithful husband explains his missing dinner with a false story about a flat tire, that story is a little lie that he hopes his wife will forget.  He willingly tells the story of that false flat tire only once.  If that same husband explains his regularly missing dinner with a false story about an imaginary friend whom he regularly visits at the old folks home, that story is a big lie that he hopes his wife will always remember.  He will speak of his imaginary friend often.

The real novelty of the truly big lie is, however, its sharp departure from the little liar’s ploy of plausible banality.  Little liars are timid and fearful of taxing the credulity of those they hope to deceive.  Big liars are bold and confident that their audacious dishonesty will not be detected by the unimaginative fraud-alarm systems of little liars.  You are more likely to believe an absent employee who tells you he has cancer than you are to believe an absent employee who tells you he has a cold.

Truly big lies are told by politicians in order to permanently warp the understanding of the plebian mob of little liars over whom they rule.  The essential technique is repetition of the big lie by the politician, and echoing of the big lie by his conspirators.  A plebian liar cannot imagine sustaining a falsehood for so long.  He can only dream of a world in which the little lie he told his wife last night is echoed in the morning newspaper (“A lone motorist was spotted changing a tire on Highway 21 at 10:28 yesterday evening”).  One reason a big lie is “big” is that you hear it again and again and again.

 “They hammered away day after day, with the big lie technique.”*

Another reason a big lie is “big” is that it is what we call a “whopper.”  I said a moment ago that you are more easily taken in by fictional cancer than a fictional cold.  This is because you have at least thought of calling in sick for a day with a fictional cold, but lack the audacity to call in sick for a year with fictional cancer.  I once had a colleague who very nearly got away with claiming authorship of fictional books.  We were accustomed to discount little lies of petty boasting, of which we were all more or less guilty, but we were very nearly hoodwinked by these nonexistent titles because we could not imagine such audacity.

Politicians tell big lies about themselves, and also about their enemies.  In the later case, seasoned big liars agree that groundless “whoppers” are by far and away the best.  To return to the example of my audacious ex-colleague, it was harder to prove that he did not publish a fictional book with a fictional publishing house, than it would have been to prove that he published a real book, but with a less prestigious publisher than he claimed.  Jerrold Douglas was a Roman Catholic reactionary in the first half of the twentieth century, and he explained that the political value of the groundless “whopper” is that it is harder to refute than the timid exaggeration.

“The big lie is much harder to dispose of than the small lie.  If you exaggerate the execution of twenty people during a civil war into a massacre of 200 people you will be easily answered by a recital of the facts . . . . If you announce a massacre of 10,000 people where there has been no shooting at all, people simply refuse to believe a denial.  There must, they say, be something, and something pretty substantial, behind such a story.”

Douglas’s last line points to the way in which the consciousness of little liars is warped by exploiting their “no-smoke-without-fire” principle.  This is, of course, why politicians blow so much smoke.  Many people are under the impression that Adolf Hitler invented the technique of the big lie, but Hitler tells us the technique is as old as lying itself.  In his discussion of the big lie in Mein Kampf, Hitler explained that big lies are designed to hoodwink little liars, and to permanently taint and tar the person or party about which the big lie is told.

“The grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in the world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.”

* * * * *

The story of the Emperor’s New Clothes is often told to illustrate the ridiculous end of a “grossly impudent lie,” but I think Hans Christian Anderson’s story has become part of the big lie that truth defeats power.  As you surely know, the story ends with the bare naked Emperor mincing down the street of his capital city in what he has been told is a suit beautiful clothes.   No one in the throng of admiring adults scoffs at this farce, for fear that by doing so he would “declare himself either a simpleton or unfit for his office.”

“But the Emperor has noting at all on!” said a little child.  “Listen to the voice of innocence!” exclaimed his father; and what the child had said was whispered from one to another.  “But he has nothing at all on! at last cried the people.”†

In reality, the father would have told his son, “shut up, smile and clap, or there will be a whipping and no supper for you.” If what the child had said was overheard and whispered through the throng, thy would no doubt have beaten him to a jelly and then thrown him down a well.  That is what it means to have power.  It means you can beat any truth-teller to a jelly and throw him down a well.  It means that your big lie lives on.


*) Stanley W. Voght, The Last Frontier (1948)
**) Jerrold Douglas, The Future of Freedom (1938)
***) Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (1930)
†) Hans Christian Anderson, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” (1837)

18 thoughts on “On Big Lies

  1. The biggest lie in politics has been told and believed going on 600 years. That is, that human relationships are at base violent, and the purpose and legitimacy of a government is based upon the arrogation of the use of that violence to itself.

    • Anarchism is also a big lie. Human relationships are at base violent and loving. We vacillate between Hobbes and Rousseau.

      • Augustine provides the truth in the matter, of course, of whom both Rousseau and Hobbes are vicious rejections.

        By the bye, a bone to pick: Rousseau does not advocate love as a basis, but narcissism. You know this, of course, having written extensively here on the difference between love and its perversions.

  2. Your post is very comprehensive. I have just started writing, previously I have tried writing a blog, but couldn’t maintain it. So, this my first attempt in writing and managing a blog and I hope, I improve the writing everyday. Though I have minimal or basic idea about politics (international or local), I feel whether a lie is big or small is subjective. At small level, It varies from person to person what you feel about trust, honesty vs lies and dishonesty at personal level! But at big level, if some politicians invades your privacy and security for example in the case of voting scams and all, for diverting the votes towards themselves, then that’s is considered a big scam by all the people.

    • Good luck with your blog. I suggest that you start out writing something short every day. Regular practice improves your writing and thinking, and short pieces attract more readers.

      The boundary between big and little lies may be fuzzy, but the distinction is not subjective. It is a matter of scope and scale. A but lie involves a large number of people over a long time. A little lie involves a small number of people over a short time. A little lie may be more sinful than a big lie, since big does not mean extremely bad in my usage.

  3. Outstanding post.

    One of the most obvious Big Lies lately has been “We have to lock down society to save it from a killer virus.”

    And indeed, the bold liars and their conspirators have successfully tricked multitudes of little liars.

    But several things have surprised me about the mass of little liars. Yes, they are gullible and susceptible to the Big Lie. But they have also shown themselves in many cases to be:

    A) Narcissistic.
    Many people, especially fairly intelligent upper middle class types, assume that the politicians and journalists and scientists exist to inform them, rather than to persuade them. Their narcissism blinds them to the financial incentives of these information providers.
    “CNN exists to inform my important judgments,” they tell themselves.
    “Oh really?” I think. “Are you the one who pays for CNN to exist? If not, then you’re not the client.”

    B) Eager useful idiots.
    Even when people realize, consciously or subconsciously, that the Big Lie doesn’t make any sense, many are eager to believe and even promote the Big Lie. They crave status and faux-virtue. So they eagerly echo the messaging coming down from the high status Big Liars, and even act as angry enforcers of the Lie.

    C) Against God.
    Bruce Charlton talks about this a lot. There is a certain eager nihilism in people’s embrace of Covidism. They are turning away from God, away from the Beautiful, Good, and True.

    I haven’t been surprised that people are easily fooled by the Big Lie.
    And I haven’t been surprised that people are easily scared by either the Big Lie or the Big Liars and their enforcers. But I have been surprised by how eagerly hundreds of millions of people have embraced the Big Lie as their own new central Truth, a new source of status and meaning in their lives.

    • Thanks. I wonder if one attraction of the Big Lie is that it turns mundane existence into a dramatic story. I fully expect there to be Covid nostalgia if we ever come out of this. There seem to be many people who find meetings less banal when they are run on Zoom. They get a sense of importance when they can wear headphones.

      • Great point.

        The idea that you can be a hero by doing next to or worse than nothing is a big sell for some folks.

  4. Thanks for sharing your views. Sometimes, I usually write short posts because like you said, I have started writing recently. But sometimes, when I feel there is a need to write more, I write as much as I can to convey the complete meaning. So, usually short, but sometimes long too!

    Whether a lie is big or small, depends upon “the number of people” (scope) and “the time span” (scale)”. So, yes the distinction is not subjective. But there are contradictions, especially at small levels.

  5. For example, I was raped when I was 5-6 years old. And due to shame and many other reasons, I have told the people I know after many many years. So, not telling about my incidents count as big lie or small lie?

    • Keeping a secret is not lying unless you are keeping the secret from someone who has a right to know. I do not know the circumstances of your terrible experience, but it is not clear that any lying was involved. If lying was involved, it was probably a little lie. The only possibility of a big lie that I see is if your silence was part of a conspiracy to protect the rapist.

  6. Even though Adolf was a man who surely knew a lot about lies, I none the less have to disagree with the definition.
    You assume that only the one who tells a lie is responsible for it, but really, the one who wants to hear that lie is every bit as guilty. When the wife sees lipstick on her husband’s chin, smells a woman’s perfume on him and know the old folks home was closed years ago, but still likes to hear about the imaginary friend – that’s when it truly becomes a Big Lie. And the wife becomes as guilty of it as the husband. The Big Lie by its nature is a cooperation.
    No one – not ONE person – actually believes that “gender is a social construct”. But lots of people like to hear that lie. And every single one of those people is as guilty of the lie as the most rabid academic gender theorist.
    “White people are guilty of racism and oppression” and “you cannot blame Muslims for terrorism because it is wrong to generalize” are, certainly taken together, a Big Lie. No one can honestly believe both things. Yet hundreds of millions of people within the rotting corpse of Western civilization consider both statements good and decent. And every one of those people is just as guilty of the lie as the worst of the journalists and politicians.
    In the end it doesn’t matter whether you are one of the big or the little people – if you cooperate with evil you are guilty of evil and if you do not repent of it you are damned.

    • As the title of the old W.C. Fields’ movie put it, “you can’t cheat an honest man.” This is partly because little liars think they understand lying, but also because they want to be lied to. Sometimes this is simple flattery, but there are dark corners in this labyrinth that no one really understands. The examples you give all suggest a people who have grown to hate themselves, and who are hungry to hear the lie that this self-hatred is justified. They have an appetite for degradation, and on top of that an appetite for the big lie that they deserve to be degraded. I am horrified by this ethno-masochism, and even more horrified by the big lie that there is no ethno-masochism.

  7. I was under the impression that Hitler explained the big lie technique to show how Jewish conspirators had pinned the failure of the Western Front in 1918 on General Ludendorff. It’s tempting to see this as a recursive application of the Big Lie in a display of unprecedented lying virtuosity. However, given subsequent events, it’s near certain that Hitler actually believed what he was writing. The logic of the Big Lie was not lost on him, though, as he schemed for power.

    • I do not have an intimate acquaintance with Hitler’s thought, but it is pretty clear he did not think his ideas about the big lie were original. The popular notion that the Nazis invented the big lie is itself a big lie. We use the word “narrative” to describe exactly the same thing today, since a ‘big lie’ is just a falsification/distortion of reality for political ends.


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