In a chapter on liars and lying in his Essays, Michel de Montaigne draws distinctions between truth and its opposite. There is not only the distinction “betwixt an untruth and a lie, and say that to tell an untruth is to tell a thing that is false, but that we ourselves believe to be true.” There is also the distinction between forms of lying and of telling the truth: “If falsehood had, like truth, but one face only, we should be upon better terms; for we should then take for certain the contrary to what the liar says: but the reverse of truth has a hundred thousand forms, and a field indefinite, without bound or limit.” Montaigne places a special emphasis on the value of the word, where the word is first and communication is second. Inverting the usual priorities, Montaigne emphasizes that the word is an end, while communication is a means: animals also communicate, but there is a difference in the way humans speak. Montaigne calls lying “an accursed vice” because it’s an eminently antisocial behavior: “We are not men, nor have other tie upon one another, but by our word. If we did but discover the horror and gravity of it, we should pursue it with fire and sword, and more justly than other crimes.”
As we’ve seen during the last few years in this country, manipulation of the word by powerful people is characterized by vulgarity, superficiality, and banality. Montaigne asks, “How much less sociable is false speaking than silence?” The word is the place of our singular humanity, anchored as it is in our flesh, in our social condition, in our sexuality, in our personal history. Only an appropriate use of the word makes the world intelligible and human. The defense of democracy is above all the defense of the word; with the falsification of the word everything else is betrayed and trust is undermined at the root. The corruption of the word corrupts democracy: “Since our relationships are regulated by the only way of the word, he who falsifies the word betrays the public society.” Democracy thrives on exchange, dialogue, comparison of opinions; words shape laws, rules, and norms. In a democracy the word substitutes for violence, allowing the peaceful resolution of conflict and making civil coexistence possible. W. H. Auden spoke of the connection between the falsification of the word in the public square and the strife in our streets in 1971. “As a poet—not as a citizen—there is only one political duty, and that is to defend one’s language from corruption. And that is particularly serious now. It’s being so quickly corrupted. When it’s corrupted, people lose faith in what they hear, and this leads to violence.” We are seeing an even more accelerated version of this today, especially in American politics, as social media overflows with images and text that seem to promote a strategy of organized lying: concealment of truth, distortion of the meaning of events, presentation of falsehoods as facts.