Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts
Tans lecture by German philosopher Bettina Stangneth
Why do people vote for a leader who does not even try to look credible? It is the main question that philosopher and historian Bettina Stangneth raised in the Tans lecture ‘Celebration of Lying’, organised by Studium Generale.
January 2017. “A president of a country that must not be named, claimed that he had the biggest inauguration party of all times. Pictures, movies, and numbers showed otherwise.” There are few things more confusing today, Stangneth (1966, Lübeck) argues, than the admiration for liars. “How can someone possibly recruit followers by presenting a white sheet of paper but claiming it is black?”
A highly topical and interesting question, but the answer only comes at the end of the lecture, after a tough philosophical lecture on lying, liars and the believers. Studium Generale had impressed upon her: please, not too complicated! Nevertheless, last Tuesday evening, in the lecture hall on the Tongersestraat, utmost concentration was required, also because Stangneth read from paper with a somewhat soft and monotonous voice.
Lies are “not growing on trees like apples,” Stangneth says. “Lies are only there, because someone wants them to be. Someone who wants to hide an uncomfortable or unwanted truth and to present an alternative. (…) Lying is a tool that humans are able to use. All of us are potential liars, real liars from time to time, I guess.”
And liars need believers. “Becoming the victim of a liar is completely different to becoming the victim of a murderer. To get killed, it’s enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. To be lied to, one has to think for oneself. (…) One has to open the door first.”
And that is what millions do by voting for a leader who clearly and shamelessly lies. Voting for a liar seems to be nothing but stupid, Stangneth reasons. But not if you regard voting as protesting, as buying a gun. “You vote not for a politician, but acquire a weapon against politicians, against politics, against a system that you want to destroy. Enfants terribles, the blighters, are unbelievably useful to unsettle democracy, much more powerful than any kind of terrorism could be.”
It’s a well-known phenomenon on social media: the sponsored troll. Or as Stangneth puts it: “A professional troublemaker who is able to blast every community.” Back to the president of that country that must not be named: “While the community is still confused by his bad manners, others are electing him because of those manners. To say it frankly: They vote for Grab ‘em by the pussy.”
Stangneth ends her lecture somewhat cryptically: “Don’t feed the trolls, but never stop asking yourself why you still want to.”
Who is Bettina Stangneth?
In 2011, philosopher and historian Bettina Stangneth (1966, Lübeck) gained much praise for her book Eichmann before Jerusalem. In it, she argues that the architect of the Holocaust knew exactly what he was doing. He was not a subordinate bureaucrat only trying to do his work as well as possible, not the personification of the ‘banality of evil’, as the famous philosopher Hannah Arendt labelled him during the trial in Jerusalem. Eichmann lied, posed and in the meantime completely endorsed the Nazi ideology.
In 2016, Thinking Evil was published, in which the philosopher from Hamburg states that evil does not stem from reason with shortcomings, as the Enlightenment philosophers believed. Given sufficient freedom for thought, debate and education, a reasonable world would automatically emerge. Not the case, according to Stangneth: thinking is an instrument, a knife that can be used for good and evil.
Just like evil is not the result of defective thinking, the lie is not the result of ignorance. To be able to lie, knowledge of the truth is indispensable, she writes in Deciphering lies (2017). Lying is not easy; it requires fantasy and imagination. Last year, Hässliches Sehen was published, in which she analyses our visual culture.
All very interesting fare, but be aware: Stangneth may be an original thinker, but she is not very accessible. Newspaper reviews often quote single sentences to show how complicated her writing is.