Anyone who has been lied to, deceived or cheated knows that lying is not OK. But outside of using others (of not treating others with the respect and dignity that an individual requires as a person with intrinsic worth), a liar sells their own integrity down the river – that they themselves (their personhood) has no worth. Even if you get away with the lie, it comes back, perhaps in the quiet of the night, to haunt the liar (unless they are schizophrenic or a malicious recidivist).
Companies and governments enforce strict codes of conduct to prevent staff from acting inappropriately. Employees are given the ethics codes on their first day in the office, contracts clearly stipulate ethical grounds for dismissal and Corporate Social Responsibility standards are enforced industry wide. So why then do environmental activists think it is OK to lie in order to spread their campaigns?
This week my social media and email accounts filled up with concerned individuals who were horrified to learn that Monsanto was awarded the Nobel Prize for Agriculture. A few problems: there is no such thing as a Nobel Prize for Agriculture, the World Food Prize that was tied to it is managed by a small foundation based in Iowa, USA (and with a link to a 1970 Nobel laureate, Norman Borlaug) and the small award was given to biotech researchers back in June of this year. But as Goebbels taught us, the bigger the lie … It is a clever lie to tell as the Nobel organisation are awarding great researchers in October, so people can believe it, share their outrage and remind themselves that they really hate Monsanto and GMOs (complacency is the enemy of activist outrage campaigns so you must keep the hatred raw and vitriolic). And it was clever legally as well, since it was not a news story that the liars could be sued for as the organisation – the Washington based Sum of Us – spread the deception via a petition (safety in numbers of signatories), using quotes for terms like “Nobel Prize for Agriculture” and putting question marks at the end of their declarations. But it is still lying because the aim was to get people to think something that was not true.
This is not unusual for environmental activists. Greenpeace have subcontracted the Yes-Men to spread viral videos that are completely fabricated and which they then communicated widely as “news” thinking that most people will recognise that the activities are meant to be spoofs. The problem is that they do a very good job making the “news” look realistic. Take for example the 2012 Greenpeace-Yes-Men spoof of a Shell press conference that went badly wrong – most people who shared it virally did not realise that it was not true (that is was a fabricated event intended to hurt Shell’s reputation and further the outrage of their anti-Shell campaigning). In a social-media discussion where I accused Greenpeace of lying, they said that the goal was to raise awareness of Shell’s activities in the Arctic and was thus wholly justifiable. Greenpeace even gloated at how clever their lying was.
This is rather Machiavellian – that the end justifies the means, and if you believe that saving the planet is more important than behaving properly, then perhaps you can sleep at night. If you believe that those you are waging campaigns against are also lying and deceiving, then perhaps you can convince yourself that you are merely a “noble liar”. I don’t believe this myself. I believe that any lying degrades humanity, destroys personal credibility and integrity and brings us all down. I think it is high time for environmental NGOs to consider internal ethical codes of good conduct (and no, transparency is not an ethical standard!). This is necessary especially as organisations like Greenpeace think that they have the right to break laws and don’t understand that others indeed have the right to enforce laws for good reason (so 30 rather naïve idealists will likely rot in a Russian jail for a long time).
It is not just environmental NGOs that need to learn that noble self-righteousness does not justify ethical impropriety. I was quite surprised to see that the WHO was “perception-moulding the truth” regarding e-cigarettes. In a recent report, the WHO FCTC had raised issues on the data on e-cigarettes because it would otherwise risk reversing the progress that has been achieved in denormalising tobacco. How dare the truth come out and interfere with a good campaign. I don’t have enough space to consider how, in the past, the IPCC has “interpreted certain facts and data”.
White lies might be justifiable if we feel they are insignificant and that people want to believe certain things (the wife who asks her husband if “her dress makes her look fat” is rarely asking for the truth). So do activists and WHO administrators feel that they are doing a service by giving people misinformation because they want to believe that Monsanto, Shell or Big Tobacco are evil? Goebbels knew that the German people needed to believe in the greatness of the Third Reich, so perhaps he was also just telling a series of very efficient white lies.
Deception is never harmless or justifiable.