Lies, Big Lies and Comment is Free

The concept of the Big Lie is nihilistic. Formulated and first set out by Hitler in Mein Kampf in 1925 it is a lie so “colossal” that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously”. Thus Hitler set out that there was no objective truth, that repeating the Big Lie would establish the truth as set out by him.

This sort of moral relativism which fostered Big Lie-type thinking styles which in turn led to the Jewish genocide is alive and well in the world today. We seem to have learned nothing from the consequences of of the Nazis’ egregious behaviour.

Indeed, so entrenched is the Big Lie philosophy in the blogosphere that even intelligent people are unaware that they are being manipulated by it. Nowhere is there a better exemple of the blurred distinction between truth and outright falsehood, between objective reality and opinion expressed as fact, than in the Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free (CiF).

Big Lies abound on CiF, aided and abetted by the philosophy of its editorial team and their writers. A vital aspect of the effectiveness of the Big Lie is its perpetuation by regular repetition. The reiterative posting of the same lies on CiF makes one suspect that they are all gathered from the same source – the intellectually challenged who post them even use identical or similar phraseology again and again and again.

The first and most obvious Big Lie which CiF promulgates is that Palestinians are the only victims in the Middle East. True, the unremarkable Seth Freedman wrote one article about Sderot in 2008 (and Sderot has been under almost daily rocket fire since but he has not written about Sderot since), but instead of concentrating upon the psychological and other trauma of the residents who were under almost continuous rocket fire, we were presented with criticism of the Israeli government for failing to take adequate care of them.

Elsewhere on CiF readers are continually treated to variations on the Big Lie theme about alleged ill-treatment of Palestinians by Israel: that Gaza is variously being strangled or being starved, or is the object of systematic genocide.

It matters little to those who persist in this vein that the population of Gaza is growing, or that reliable evidence is posted that Hamas confiscates the aid provided free to its people and sells it back to them at extortionate prices.

The most intractable aspect of the psyches of the Big Liars on CiF is their imperviousness to reasoned argument. Time and time again responding posters provide evidence of Israel’s help to the Palestinians in Gaza, of Hamas’ brutality towards its own people – pace its treatment of Fatah before Hamas came into power and after Cast Lead, as well as the stealing of aid for its people which I have already mentioned.

However, so uncomfortable are the CiF Israel haters made by such disclosure that they entrench ever more deeply into their distorted views.

One explanation for such an ingrained belief in lies – big or otherwise – even where there is evidence to prove them to be what they are – may be that this is a defence against cognitive dissonance.

Leon Festinger (1954) described this as “the feeling of psychological discomfort produced by the combined presence of two thoughts that do not follow from one another.”

Festinger (1954), and Harmon-Jones & Mills, (1999) argued that the desire to reduce cognitive dissonance is greater in people who are made most uncomfortable by the contradictory thoughts they hold. This is often evident in the comments made to articles on CIF.

The theory of cognitive dissonance suggests that if people feel pressured to act in ways contradictory to their beliefs, then they will tend to change their beliefs to make these more consonant with their actions (or vice-versa).
We have seen that the anti-Israel posters on CiF hunt in packs, reiterate the same terminology and faulty reasoning in their attacks on Israel’s people and policies. It seems reasonable to conclude, therefore, that they feel pressured to follow the herd mindlessly in this manner.

The very rigidity and imperviousness of their beliefs, and their implacable opposition to the opposing arguments as expressed on CiF, may indicate that at some unconscious level these posters are nervous about them, that they cause emotional discomfort and even that they cause the Israel-haters to waver in their beliefs.

The dissonance becomes plain and worsens when these posters are confronted by facts which refute their rigidly held views – that the alleged deliberate bombing of the UN school in Gaza was a lie, that Hamas itself steals food from the mouths of its own people (and therefore that it, rather than Israel, is responsible for any starvation that might ensue); that it behaves barbarously towards its own people by killing and torturing them in front of their own families.

This dissonance is further exacerbated by carefully-constructed opposing arguments and, as the dissonance increases, we can see that the posters become more and more uncomfortable (because in spite of their furious disagreement with them, those opposing arguments actually register) and they post more contributions in quicker and quicker succession as if to overwhelm with volume of words what they cannot carry by dint of reasoned argument.

Such people seem to have no means to soothe themselves. They have lost all contact with reality: for them, CiF is no longer merely a blog, these are no longer mere words – rather, each measured disagreement with their arguments, carefully crafted and backed up by evidence, is construed as a personalised attack.

Of course, incensed anti-Israel posters are nothing new and indeed CiF relies upon them for ‘hits’. The sting in the tail, however, is that the arguments, the Big Lies, continue to be repeated until they become common currency and accepted as truths if they fall upon receptive ground.

We have seen variations of this effect in the increasing acceptability of Jew-hating discourse on CiF and the minimising of antisemitism there.

What to do? Careful, reasoned fact-based argument works – we see it daily in the obvious discomfiture of the CiF posters whose arguments are emotion-based rather than fact-based and are countered accordingly. It is possible to undermine the equilibrium of such people. Of course, CiF stacks the cards heavily against reasoned argument or the right to reply to the more off-the-wall examples of hatred – but that need not put us off.

We none of us know the far-reaching effects of what we may write. A casual surfer, not filled with hatred or otherwise compromised by the emotional rollercoaster of defending against cognitive dissonance, may happen on what we write and be encouraged to learn more about both sides of the argument – rather than only one.

In this way, albeit slowly, we may impact on closed minds.

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