Geoff Johnson: Students should learn about the consequences of Big Lies in history

The B.C. Grade 12 curriculum focuses on 20th-century world history and includes units on authoritarian regimes and social and cultural developments.

Given the ever-complicated world of political flapdoodle and folderol, along with reports of the partisan shenanigans that tap dance around any semblance of truth south of our border, this would seem a good time to include a Grade 12 History unit on ­history’s “Big Lies” and their consequences throughout world history.

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Maybe not a timely Christmas topic for a column, but timely anyway.

A study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience found that lying is a slippery slope, and when people consistently tell small lies, the brain becomes desensitized to the pang of guilt that dishonesty usually causes. Small lies become big lies.

Politics and sometimes organized religion have always found it convenient to utilize the “Big Lie” for their own purposes.

As far back as 1610, political and some religious leaders denied science when ­scientists such as Galileo, the father of observational astronomy, proposed that the planet Earth revolved around the sun, not vice-versa, and that the earth was not the centre of the universe.

Galileo was tried by the Roman Inquisition, found “vehemently suspect of heresy,” and forced to recant. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

Fast forward to the 20th century and the “Big Lie” promoted by Hitler and his ­sycophants, using Jews as political ­scapegoats. As Hitler’s Reich Minister of Propaganda advised, if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. It worked and Nazism was the result.

In 2008, fraudster Bernie Madoff ­admitted that his investment firm was “just one big lie,” after he had conned an astounding ­number of people into handing over their life savings to him. Madoff kept up his fraud for over a decade, bilking $50 billion US from “investors” who heard from him what they wanted to hear.

For years, the tobacco industry assured customers that cigarettes were neither unhealthy nor addictive. The makers of Old Gold cigarettes claimed “not a cough in a carload.” The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 480,000 habitual smokers die every year because they want to believe that their habit is not dangerous.

Current daily news reports confirm that it is apparently not difficult to persuade a significant number of people that, despite all evidence to the contrary and hundreds of thousands of deaths, not only was the recent U.S. federal election fraudulent but COVID-19 is a hoax, vaccines are dangerous and the wearing of masks is a left-wing plot against “personal freedom.”

Basically, the more an individual or ­political party lies, the easier it is to do it, the bigger the lies become and the more people buy into the lie.

So how can our kids examine “Big Lies” in a constructive, educational way?

The first check, applied to any number of “Big Lies” past and present, would be to determine whether the source of the ­suspected lie has a consistent history of lying about less-consequential matters — situations where small acts of dishonesty escalate into more significant lies.

A second test would be to ask: “Who is the main beneficiary of the lie?” If the ­propagator of the lie is the main beneficiary, that could also be a tip-off.

Thirdly, what qualifications, experience and hard evidence did the suspected liar ­provide to back up the lie?

“Big Lies” work, psychologists tell us, because sometimes even the most ­outrageous lies align with what individuals want to believe, or ratify secret beliefs ­individuals don’t care to admit out loud.

The central lesson of a “Big Lie” ­curricular unit would be that people will believe what suits them or serves their ­purpose. Fact, evidence and truth have nothing to do with it.

As German-born American political ­theorist Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism: “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their ­opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.”

If a study of history is to become more relevant as a guide to the future, an ­analysis of the consequences of “Big Lies” over the centuries could be more useful than a study of the litany of events from which, as ­philosopher and idealist Georg Hegel suggested, we haven’t learned much at all.

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.

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