After World War II, scholars spent a lot of time looking at the rise of totalitarianism. Hannah Arendt examined the regimes of Hitler and Stalin, exploring among other things, the critical role of lying – constantly, flagrantly – and making subordinates repeat those lies.

Arendt explained that propaganda created “a curiously varying mixture of gullibility and cynicism with which each member… is expected to react to the changing lying statements of the leaders.” [The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951]

“In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true… The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”

She also described what we now call gas-lighting:

The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed.

Check out this excellent summary of Arendt’s work, and why we should be paying close attention to the function of the lies, by Josh Jones [Open Culture, 1-24-17].