The only thing worse than a liar is a liar who gets caught.
Many people like to say they want to know the truth, that they’re not keen on being lied to. But the way others react to being told the truth can elicit a less than warm reception. Tell your friend their significant other is literally spending all their money and being abusive towards them and you risk burning bridges with that friend. Tell the government the truth and what punishment you get depends on what you lied about.
While politicians and politics in general both have shady reputations for being the epitome of dishonesty, there’s no doubt that lying is heavily penalized in our society either socially or institutionally, to the point that lies are punished as crimes. Lying under oath is perjury, tricking people into giving you something valuable is fraud, and covering up how your money was really made is money laundering.
So, if you’re going to lie, you better make sure you don’t get caught. You either do this by coming up with a lie so ironclad that it’s difficult to dispute as truth or you never lie in the first place.
I know you’re thinking: “Hold on, lie without lying?”
It’s what the best and the brightest of liars have always done and that’s what you’ll be learning here.
Language, Politics, and the Art of Not Really Lying
No writer who has worked with the English language is as well known for talking about how malleable the truth really is than George Orwell. He was one of the first writers of the 20th century to write modern dystopian fiction and his early influence on the genre came to define one key element of dystopian fiction today: a totalitarian government whose most powerful weapon is the alteration, minimization, or outright obfuscation of the truth.
This is what 1984‘s protagonist specializes in. Winston Smith is an employee at the Ministry of Truth, a branch of the dystopian Oceania’s government, that’s mainly tasked with erasing truth.
Each day, Winston comes to work to alter documents, rewrite them, or destroy them. Throughout the novel, the dictator, Big Brother, constantly changes and shifts his language to suit the current political climate. The people who eat it all up are forced to engage in what Orwell calls “doublespeak.”
Doublespeak isn’t lying. At least, not in the strictest sense of the word. It’s the misrepresentation of the truth, a form of concealment that misdirects people’s attention from the true meaning of what is being said.
If you’ve gone to college and read any sort of academic text or you’ve worked closely with or in human resources, you’ve seen doublespeak in action more than a few times. The imprecise language used is often more interested in using the most “correct” words than it is in communicating clearly. This is itself a form of doublespeak.
George Orwell gives some examples in his essay “Politics and the English Language” where he translates a verse from Ecclesiastes to what you might recognize as modern corporate English.
The original: “I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”
The translation: “Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”
Compare the two. Can you still easily make out what’s being said in the second? Unless you’re used to that kind of winding nonsense, it’ll take a few seconds of re-reading that to decipher the meaning.
But enough about Orwell and theory. It’s time you take pointers from Doublespeak Award-winning ex-president of the United States, Bill Clinton.
1. Learn Euphemisms With Former U.S President Bill Clinton
Repeat after me: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
Not a fan of the phrase “sexual relations?” Alright, let’s try another Bill Clinton classic: “improper physical relationship“.
These two phrases were former U.S president Clinton’s trap cards in his fight to clear his name from one of the biggest sex scandals in U.S history. Clinton was accused of having a series of sexual encounters with Monica Lewinsky, who in 1995-1996 was an intern at the White House.
Lewinsky, who was 24 years old at the time, was encouraged by Linda Tripp, one of her coworkers, to record the phone conversations she had with Clinton, thereby creating an audio trail that covered as many details as possible about their, ahem, improper physical relationship. The recordings were then used as proof that Bill Clinton lied under oath, thereby committing perjury when he denied “having sexual relations with that woman.”
Exactly what kind of sexual relations they had, we can only imagine. But one of the most salacious pieces of news to come out of the incident includes Lewinsky using a cigar as a sex toy before the then-president took it and placed it in his mouth.
Aside from his affair with Lewinsky, Bill Clinton is also rumored to have sexually assaulted a number of women throughout his career. That said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” remains a classic in euphemistic obfuscation that you can adapt for whenever you have the mind to have a career-damaging affair.
Just remember not to take any calls or leave any messages.
2. Play Schrodinger’s Truth Using the Glomar Response
If anyone tries to press you on whether you had sexual relations with so and so, you can try the Central Intelligence Agency’s genius bit of wording:
“We can neither confirm nor deny the existence or non-existence of [insert thing being skirted around here].”
Known as the Glomar response, the phrase came at the heels of the Glomar Explorer’s mission to search for a Soviet Golf-II class submarine that sunk in the northwest waters of Hawaii, about 1,560 miles from the coast. Called Project Azorian, the mission involved Global Marine Development Inc. in the creation and operation of the Glomar Explorer.
The cover story employed by Global Marine Development Inc. and the C.I.A was that the ship was used for deep-sea mining of manganese nodules. In truth, the C.I.A was trying to get its hands on a Soviet submarine in order to salvage it. This left the U.S government with doubts: the last thing they needed was a bunch of reporters descending on the project like vultures, lest they anger their colleagues in Moscow.
The C.I.A was able to successfully fend off Seymour Hersh by, cough, convincing The New York Times not to publish the story. Another journalist, Ann Phillippi, picked up on this the following year and filed a Freedom of Information Act request to finally bring Project Azorian to light. Forced into saying something, anything, about the project, the C.I.A came up with their legendary response that’s used by other government branches, like the F.B.I, today.
““[We] can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of records responsive to your request.”
It was ruled a good enough balance between the public’s right to information and the secrecy required by national security for the judge deciding Phillippi vs. C.I.A.
3. Make Corporate Proud With Your Mastery of the Human Resources Dialect
It’s no secret that the human resources department and its staff are widely disliked by many employees. Whether or not this reputation is based on reality is up to you, but if there’s one thing you might have a rational basis for disliking HR for, it’s the sheer amount of fancy B.S. that sounds more important or positive than it really is.
Man, if Orwell knew how obscure human resources jargon is, he’d roll in his grave. When it comes to obfuscating language, few other areas of corporate can match the incomprehensibility of human resources speak.
It’s a pain to read through, let alone understand, but perhaps you can get some value out of these diplomatic re-phrasings of otherwise potentially inflammatory words that hold significant potential for causing employee dissatisfaction, team dissolution, and increased attrition.
Here are some common phrases you’ll encounter in your career and the diplomatic euphemisms Human Resources most often uses to talk about them:
You’re fired: career transition, right-fitting, downscale, downsize, personnel realignment, restructure, reshuffle, unassign, personnel surplus reduction, workforce imbalance correction. You’ll find a complete list here.
Human resources: Talent management, human capital management, personnel management. You get the idea. HR speak even has jargon names for itself.
Pay freeze: You’re not getting a raise.
These all work great for when you fire a recently widowed mother for the first time. Confuse her with enough jargon that she won’t even cry until after she’s left your office.
Or maybe you’re in need of a way to make your next work presentation look cool. In that case, you might get some use out of buzzwords like democratize, disrupt, and my personal favorite, “ninja.”
4. Shape People’s Perception of Your Cause of Choice With Good Ole Branding
With so many unsavory ways in which obfuscated language has been used, it’s easy to forget that words can be twisted to bend the truth in a way that advocates for a cause.
Key examples of this is how the Women’s Rights Movement is sometimes phrased as the “Women’s Liberation Movement.” Another popular example relating to women’s issues is the way people carefully choose how to describe themselves depending on how they see abortion laws. Pro-choice is one way of saying you support abortion laws by framing it as an issue of women’s rights. It becomes less about supporting abortion itself and more about the bodily autonomy of the women who get to choose whether or not they want to abort their child.
If you are against abortion laws, rather than calling yourself “anti-choice,” you might say you are “pro-life” and that your detractors are “anti-child”, “anti-family unit,” or “anti-life.”
Now, imagine you’re talking about the abortion of two twin babies/fetuses/embryos/children. Make your pick of whichever word you’d like to frame that sentence. You can either call it simply an abortion to keep things neutral or, if you’d like to be as creative as one cast member of Joseline’s Cabaret Atlanta, you might call it: a double homicide.
These branding differences in our perception of controversial topics go beyond women’s bodily autonomy or preventing the death of babies/fetuses. The ways in which we respond emotionally also change depending on how we call the act of killing yourself.
In the book Modern Death, Dr. Haider Warraich explores the myriad nuances and intricacies between culture, morality, and medical science when the three clash in the ICUs and emergency rooms of hospitals across America.
Among the things he points out is the differences between the ways we morally respond when we think of people killing themselves depending on whether it’s called:
B. Physician-assisted suicide.
The former feels dirtier. It carries with it the image of an imposing man in a lab coat, telling you there’s no hope for you but to rest forever. On the other hand, physician-assisted suicide, while still carrying the stigma of suicide also has the connotation of autonomy that we unconsciously associate with suicide. A doctor helping a patient commit suicide because their chronic illness shows no signs of ending is a little easier to swallow as it emphasizes patient autonomy.
5. Neutralize Controversial Topics With the Right Headline
Knowing how to present a cause isn’t all too different from presenting current events in a certain light.
You know how people will sometimes jump to conclusions and comment, tweet, or generally say things that aren’t even related to the article they’re reacting to? While it’s easy to dismiss it as just people being functionally illiterate, the processes behind it are rooted in the most basic ways we process information.
A study published in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review shows that the way we remember things is determined by the way it’s first presented to us. This phenomenon of top-down reading bias is just one of the many ways in which our brain makes cognitive shortcuts that are generally effective but not always accurate.
Clearly, words matter, especially when they’re on the headline of an article.
Now, say you have an article written about the sexual assault of a minor. In your headline, it can be called two things: rape or non-consensual sex. The former elicits a more visceral response. The word rape can cause moral outrage and, if the rape survivor in question is a child, may have even the most mild-tempered people muttering under their breath about the death penalty.
In comparison, non-consensual sex sounds clean. If anything, it sounds almost too clean.
For Kelly Oliver, a professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University who writes for The New York Times, there’s no such thing as non-consensual sex. What it is is simply sexual violence.
“The erosion of rights can happen in a variety of ways, and manipulation of language is one of them,” Oliver writes. She explains further, “Implicit in the concept of sex is consent. Without consent, sexual activity becomes rape.”
It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It
I have a little confession to make.
When you clicked on this article, I was banking on you being the type to be interested in learning how to manipulate other people. Getting ahead is such a base instinct we all seem to have in varying degrees. We might not want to admit it to ourselves, let alone others, but the popularity of dark psychology seems to be the Google algorithm pointing a finger at our own perversions.
The truth is that this isn’t an article about learning how to lie to others without actually lying. Nor is it an article on how to minimize the chances you’ll get caught lying. No.
The real topic here is how politicians, the media, and literally anyone can lie to you without straight-up telling a lie. These lies aren’t lies in the traditional sense. They’re untruths, alternative facts designed for a post-truth era.
I can neither confirm nor deny whether there are other ways you can be manipulated and misled. You’ll have to figure that out for yourself by learning more about How to Delegitimize Your Opponent: A Beginner’s Guide To Bad Politics and the fact that You Are Not Immune to Propaganda.