The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I teach my college students to lie. Honestly. Whoppers. It’s good for them.

Here’s what accounts for the beguiling vitality of the bald-faced liar.

A man browses through the Twitter account of Alt News, a fact-checking website. (Altaf Qadri/AP)

When President Trump’s “false or misleading statements” surpassed 10,000 recently, as documented by the Washington Post Fact Checker, political commentators worried that Trump’s lying might encourage Americans to lie more frequently. “Without truth and a common factual basis for our national life,” Peter Wehner wrote in the Atlantic, “a free society cannot operate.”

Such claims are valid — we have good reason to fear that Trump’s lying threatens our democracy. But pious eulogizing of the truth can oversimplify the problem. We need to “model truthfulness, temperance, decency and integrity in our daily lives,” Wehner wrote. “If you want to improve yourself and the people around you,” new atheist author Sam Harris has instructed, “you need only stop lying.”

Equating decency with honesty, and wickedness with lies, however, ignores the moral complexity of mendacity and our conflicted relationship with the truth. And so while college courses on spotting fake news are proliferating, in my class at the University of Michigan, I teach students how to lie. Not tiny lies, or white lies, but big lies, real whoppers, told for political ends. My purpose is not to validate Trump’s lies but to help students understand what commentators like Wehner and Harris overlook: Lying is not only essential for human social interaction — to protect our privacy, or the feelings of others, or the oppressed — it is inherently liberating, and that’s what makes it dangerous and seductive.

Each student in my class starts by proposing a lie with a political agenda that could be loosed to great effect. They explain why someone would propagate the lie, and the lie’s intended audience. By this point, we’ve studied several real-world examples, including the Soviets’ lie that the CIA invented HIV/AIDS to target African Americans, and the Republicans’ lie that the Affordable Care Act would create “death panels.” There’s something brilliantly wicked about these lies: how they exploit anxieties within the target populations; how they feel true even though they’re false. In each, you glimpse the creator’s ingenuity at work. You sense the purpose, trajectory and outcome: a weapon artfully created to do maximum damage.

Some students struggled. They lacked the creativity to dream up an original lie or the moral license to do something that was self-evidently unethical.

Others claimed to struggle to appease their conscience (I’m not the kind of person who could do this), while in fact they cooked up some corkers. One student, I’ll call her Tara, evinced a small-town sensibility — respectful, quiet, unassuming. She didn’t like any of the lies she had come up with. They weren’t original, she said, and anyway, it didn’t feel right to assert something that was obviously wrong.

I reminded her of the assignment’s rationale, and eventually she relented: What if, she proposed, as part of their opposition to Trump’s immigration policy, Democrats put out the lie that ICE was forcibly sterilizing immigrant women at the border.

My God, I said, that’s perfect.

Right away you could see it: How such a lie would appeal to liberals’ tendency to believe the worst of Trump. How it would call attention to Republicans’ sanctity-of-life hypocrisy. All successful lies manipulate the truth. Tara’s lie would take advantage of the fact that ICE was already separating mothers from children at the border; it wouldn’t take much to convince outraged liberals that ICE had gone further.

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Afterward, I asked students to react: What was it like, inventing a big lie? Some reiterated Tara’s squeamishness, while others claimed they had found something exhilarating in the process. Tara herself admitted as much, while another student surprised us all by describing how he had not only invented a lie but formatted it to resemble a New York Times article and sent it to friends and family. I held up my hands in innocence: I wasn’t responsible for the spread of fake news. But I had to know — what were the results of his experiment?

Of his 25 targets, 24 accepted the article as true. Only one questioned its authenticity.

That was interesting, but, given what researchers have learned about fake news’ ability to spread, not surprising. More surprising was the enthusiasm with which this student embraced the task. A military kid, strait-laced, crew cut, who wore his uniform to class. Like Tara, respectful, quiet, unassuming. Yet also like Tara, he found in the assignment an invitation to break the rules, experienced the thrill of crossing illicit thresholds, enjoyed the license to play with reality. The exercise was liberating.

This is classic Nietzsche. The argument that truths are illusions, that conventional morality, stitched together from ancient taboos and superstitions, is a herd mentality that limits our creativity, our individual pursuit of excellence, our experience of life.

Some might argue that my class is corrupting honest youth. That I’m teaching students how to deceive, how to pursue their own agenda without constraint. Don’t we have enough scammers without professors training more? Moreover, I worry that, as a fiction writer who enjoys playing with reality, I am transporting my values to a discipline — public policy — where they don’t belong.

But as Hannah Arendt wrote, the liar “says what is not so because he wants things to be different from what they are — that is, he wants to change the world.” And he does so, Arendt added, using “this mysterious faculty of ours that enables us to say, ‘The sun is shining,’ when it is raining cats and dogs.”

To create something new, you first have to deny the validity of the status quo. Lying is a kind of creation. There is vitality in the act, while defending the truth is inherently static. Liars can say anything. They can make up a story perfectly suited to political exigencies, whereas the truth is stubborn and unpliable.

Creating a Big Lie helped students acquire a more sophisticated sense of political lying than they could gain through reading moralizing essays. They came to understand that many Americans are attracted to Trump not in spite of but because of his lies; they admit he’s lying but believe that his lies are evidence of his courage to thumb his nose not only at the establishment but also reality. They thrill in what they perceive to be Trump’s vigor.

My students brought a similar vigor to the second part of their assignment, a simulation in which they chose one lie from among the many that they had proposed, then in groups attempted to advance the lie or defend the truth. Their chosen lie was another artfully devious conceit: When 517 prisoners went missing from Orleans Parish Prison after Hurricane Katrina (which is true), as the lie would have it, they were kidnapped by NASA for experimentation.

To begin, each student adopted the persona of a real-world politician, journalist or so-called expert, then used a Twitter-style platform to advance their arguments, criticize their opponents and introduce new “evidence.” With gusto, the Liars took advantage of the tools in the deceivers’ playbook, larding their lies with facts (e.g., government experiments on vulnerable populations), asking leading questions, posing worst-case scenarios. Meanwhile, the Truthers, beholden to the facts, could not provide an accurate answer to the liars’ demands as to the location of the missing prisoners. Instead they feebly attempted to shift the debate to the jobs that NASA creates, or criminal justice reform.

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I teach another class at Michigan on what I call “applied utopianism.” We read utopian philosophers, then study real-world outcomes of their proposals. This demonstrates the dangers of extreme idealism, but also shows that, to solve intractable problems, it might be necessary to envision the impossible. Sometimes wild creativity is needed, unconstrained by reality. We study how utopians’ fanciful proposals occasionally proved useful — and yet, when students must come up with their own original ideas, they struggle, producing hackneyed recombinations of previous proposals. In fact, it’s been in my lying class — not utopia — where students have demonstrated the most creativity.

Maybe it’s a flaw in the course or assignment design that has inhibited students’ imagination in utopia. Or maybe, if we want to inspire future leaders to be creative, we must figure out how to harness the liar’s ingenuity and bravado — the fearlessness in the face of reality and willingness to assert that what has been accepted as true might not be the truth after all. To do this without lying — to go beyond reality while maintaining a grasp on the distinction between fact and fantasy — that is the visionary’s calling.