Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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Johnson is worse than a liar … he’s a faker


HE was indeed happy in the haze of a drunken hour, but Heaven knows he’s miserable now. If only because he’s been caught out. 

But let’s get one thing clear: Boris Johnson is not a liar. His embedded habits of casual deception imply a more sinister pathology. Our current Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury is a faker. 

The philosopher of language Harry Frankfurt published a paper in the mid-1980s called On Bullshit, in which he makes a distinction between the two. The liar must have a certain concern for truth if he is to be an accomplished deceiver. He always needs a linguistic alibi. 

The faker feels no such constraint. He just says what is necessary to manipulate a specific situation at a particular time. The faker has no concern for the truth; the liar is, perversely, constrained by it.  

The liar is like the professional card sharp who needs to keep in mind the rules of the game; the faker has no respect for those rules, being just as happy to pocket the chips when nobody’s looking. 

Iago needed to be a liar. Had he been a faker, Othello would have been safe. 

Johnson’s systematic fakery over the 22 months of executive overreach has helped create a culture of linguistic vandalism. He has facilitated a Humpty Dumpty government, in which words mean what the Lockdown Sanhedrin say they mean.  

The SAGE scientific advisory types have inflicted on the rest of us multiple invisible harms, abuses which cannot be quantified on a projector slide, and the damage they have done to language – which doesn’t belong to them – is, in my view, one of the most egregious of these. Their fakery has amounted to an attempted seizure of the language of the lockdown debate, which is an attempted coup against freedom of thought itself. 

It’s probably better to be neither a liar nor a faker. But a specific health warning attaches to fakery: You begin to believe your own nonsense.  

You end up believing that a garden is an office; that you need an investigation to tell you whether you were at a party or not; that the fresh air in SW1 is unique in that there, and only there, it acts as a preventative measure against a virus you claim is cutting the rest of us down. 

Johnson’s disdain for the rules and conventions of language goes beyond his indifference to the concept of truth. In his ‘apology’ to the Commons (and the nation) last week, he stated that he ‘took responsibility’ for the (apparently multiple) hypocrisies which are now coming to light. He has of course done no such thing. 

Speech is also a form of action and shapes the world as much as it describes it. When a serving police officer tells you that you are under arrest, you are ipso facto deprived of your liberty; when at the Last Supper Our Lord announced that the bread was His body, then that divine speech act made it so; when I make a promise, I impose on myself non-descriptive obligations of future action.  

Speech is, in many contexts, far more powerful than the merely written word. In the first chapters of Genesis, in any translation, it is noticeable that God speaks the universe into being. 

And likewise, when I speak the words ‘I take responsibility’, I am obliged to find a course of action which will discharge that responsibility. Hiding behind an inquiry that is being conducted by a subordinate, or sacking your advisers, doesn’t cut it.  

Johnson’s idea of ‘libertarianism’ seems to amount to this: He gets to do what he wants. His conception of ‘responsibility’ involves a similar form of expediency in which the nature of responsibility, once claimed, fades into the ether. 

I don’t particularly care about parties. I don’t even care that much about the hypocrisy of a government which imposes rules it casually ignores. I have a certain exasperation towards the general public for going along with the nonsense in the first place.  

But these disclosures have confirmed that we have a Prime Minister who lacks any moral compass and just fakes it when it suits him. And the reason we know he lacks that compass is that he has a supreme and well-established indifference to the power and efficacy of language. 

That matters. And to go back to that song: Even Caligula had the decency to blush. Johnson seems incapable of it. 

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Sean Walsh
Sean Walsh
Sean Walsh is a writer.

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