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  • Who Speaks a Lie?
  • J. Hillis Miller (bio)

Who speaks when a lie is spoken? That question seems easy to answer. The speaker of the lie speaks the lie. That speaker is a person in full possession of his or her senses who, knowing the truth, deliberately speaks a falsehood.

Matters are not quite so simple with lies, however. My question about who speaks a lie is by no means trivial or merely theoretical in these bad days. In my analysis, I have especially in mind the manifold lies that President Donald Trump has spoken or tweeted and goes on daily speaking and tweeting. Trump seemingly cannot open his mouth or touch the keypad to tweet at five in the morning or whenever without lying. He is a congenital and pathological liar. This would not matter so much if he were not president of the United States. Trump's lies are sometimes false assertions of what he claims are facts, as when he says climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to destroy the US economy. Sometimes Trump's lies are promises that he cannot or does not intend to keep, as when he promises to put all those unemployed coal miners back to work in reopened coal mines, or to bring back lost manufacturing jobs to the United States, or to deport all 11 million illegal immigrants out of the country, or to build that famous wall keeping new illegal immigrants from crossing into the United States from Mexico, or when he asserts that authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline will create thousands of new permanent jobs in the United States, whereas it will create a few dozen permanent maintenance jobs at most.

The list of Trump's lies is almost interminable. It is growing daily, whenever he tweets again. Of course, many members of Trump's administration, as well as members of his family and his other private advisers, also lie habitually. His budget director recently said that no more federal money would be allotted to climate change study and mitigation because "we consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that."9

Immanuel Kant, in a famous passage in The Critique of Practical Reason, "On a Supposed Right to Lie from Altruistic Motives," asserts that it would be immoral to lie to a murderer who has asked whether our friend who is pursued by him had taken refuge in our house.10 I should tell the murderer that my friend is in my house. [End Page 303]

Why would it be wrong to lie on such an occasion? Because the entire successful living-together of human beings in families and communities of all sorts and kinds, including political ones, depends on strict and universal truth telling. Of course, all politicians tell whoppers now and then, but no others that I know of lie so habitually as Trump. That constant lying by someone in his position of sovereignty is why so much is at stake in Trump's everyday untrue discourse. His perpetual lying and that of his associates is radically endangering US democracy.

A lie is a peculiar kind of speech act. Its referential or constative value is nil. What it says does not correspond to anything in the real world. Climate change is not a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese or by self-serving scientists at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or by those in the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

A "felicitous" speech act or "performative utterance," the speech act specialist J. L. Austin observes at one point in How to Do Things with Words, must be spoken by someone in the right situation and in his or her right mind with deliberate intent to bring about a desired effect in the real world. As Austin elsewhere says, "A performative utterance will, for example, be in a peculiar way hollow or void if said by an actor on the stage, or if introduced in a poem, or spoken in soliloquy."11

What Austin says in How to Do Things with Words is complex and fascinating. It would be impossible to recapitulate here what takes me...


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pp. 303-305
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