Bearing false witness

Some years back, in Cosmopolitan‘s section where people confess to shitty behavior, a guy said he’d been so humiliated by his girlfriend breaking up with him he lied to their friends about it. He told them that sure, he’d let her say she made the decision but the truth was he ended the relationship because of her gross kink: she liked to masturbate with Twinkies, then eat them (the guy admitted this was a lie). Now everyone sympathizes with him and cracks dirty jokes behind her back.

This is a small, petty example why bearing false witness is so toxic. If he’d done one spiteful thing to pay her back — insulted her to her face, stolen something, tried to ruin her next relationship — that would be bad but he could stop there. Lying about her sexual habits can’t be a one time thing. Every time someone makes a joke about her, he has to laugh and pretend he was telling the truth; the false witness is ongoing. If he stops lying he’ll piss off a lot of his friends and lose all that sympathy he’s been enjoying. Even if he comes to regret his little meanness, he may not have the stomach for that.

Or consider the conspiracy theorists claiming Sandy Hook was a false flag. As Elizabeth Williamson’s book shows, many of them have developed an online social life built around the supposed conspiracy: telling them that yes, it happened feels like an attack on their friend groups. Many of them thrive on coming up with new reasons Sandy Hook must have been a put-up job, which feeds their ego (they’ve seen through the lies that blind the sheeple!) and gets plaudits from their comrades. As their lives become dependent on the lie, it becomes harder to let go.

The same applies to QAnon, except perhaps worse. Qanon is a much bigger, more ambitious theory: rather than explaining one incident, it’s far-reaching theory nonsense about an impossibly huge pedophile conspiracy. It gives users an excuse to hate their enemies, which is incredibly tempting (lord knows I feel the impulse) and tells believers that they’re moral, even heroic people. What could be more moral than standing against pedophile Satanists? Or as Fred Clark at slacktivist cynically but accurately put it (I don’t have the link), if you want to look virtuous, pretend you’re standing next to a pedophile.

As the blogger Hilzoy once put it, “if you don’t keep hatred in check, you come to rely on it more and more, the fun fades, and it corrodes you from within. The more you nurse your hatred, the larger a part of your identity it becomes. But hatred is a poor substitute for a genuine self, and the more you come to depend on it, the hollower you become, and the harder it is to let it go.” Eventually, if you don’t let go, it becomes your genuine self.

Even those who bear completely insincere false witness can’t walk away easily. I assume Ron DeSantis and his toadies are outright lying when they equate gays to groomers (they have no problem ignoring right-wing Christian groomers) but having made that his brand, DeSantis can’t back off without suffering politically. I’d say he’s trapped, but I doubt he feels trapped — he’s making this slimy choice with eyes wide open.

Like they say, we should be careful who we pretend to be because the mask we wear can all too easily become our face.

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