No More Big Lie

As we end 2022, I find myself mentally scrolling through some of the news stories over the last year and finding a recurrent theme of lying. This has has become so common, so reflexive that we seem to have normalised it in the public sphere, particularly politics.

Anne Applebaum in her 2020 book The Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, argues that the route to authoritarianism is piloted by The Big Lie. This is a divisive myth which party members and adherents must espouse, even if they only partially believe it, in order to belong. It is frequently and loudly proclaimed precisely because it lacks a factual basis.

The UK’s Brexit campaign wasn’t the first Big Lie, and Applebaum gives several other examples, but Brexit was the first time I remember seeing such calculated deceit in domestic politics unfolding against contemporaneous fact-checking. Lies were told about immigration, extra money for the NHS, legal and economic autonomy, and trade deals, and seemingly could not be dislodged with evidence. These lies were repeated by politicians and they saturated social media channels so that people assumed they must be true. Indeed, Donald Trump saw this strategy as a template for his own 2016 presidential bid. People, it seemed, were willing to sacrifice truth and logic for identity created through signalling a set of values. Politics now occupied the realm of the talismanic and symbolic, and we became further desensitized to lying and misinformation during the Boris Johnson administration.

It remains uncertain whether Donald Trump will face any consequences for his actions leading to the attempted insurrection on January 6th 2021. The Congressional Committee charged with investigating the events of that day had no doubt that the former president was responsible and their amassing of the facts has been impressive. But Trump is a master at standing on the edge of legality and testing the constitutional limits on his conduct in office. If he is allowed to argue, as Nixon did in his 1977 interviews with David Frost, that whatever a president does is by definition legal, we will sanction a legacy that is terminal for any prospects of decency in politics.

We are already seeing the results of this realignment in behavioral expectations. We have travelled very far from the ‘good chap’ theory of government which may have imposed restraints in an era when shame was a powerful social force, but not anymore. This week, a case has caused real consternation in the US in the form of George Santos, the elected Congressman for New York’s 3rd District, who will take his seat on January 3rd 2023.

It appears that nothing Mr Santos told his supporters in the November election was true. The New York Times reports:

Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, the marquee Wall Street firms on Mr. Santos’s campaign biography, told The Times they had no record of his ever working there. Officials at Baruch College, which Mr. Santos has said he graduated from in 2010, could find no record of anyone matching his name and date of birth graduating that year.

It gets worse. He has lied about his family background, claiming his Jewish grandparents fled the Holocaust. His heritage is Brazilian and he was raised Roman Catholic. He claimed on Twitter this year that his mother worked in finance and died in the Twin Towers on 9/11, only to undermine himself a few months later by revealing it was only the fifth anniversary of her death. His lies were so numerous they defied consistency.

What is interesting is the response given by Mr Santos to these allegations which would have been career-ending, even as recently as five years ago in the USA. So degraded has the Republican Party become that Santos feels able to shuck off the stigma of his fabrications with the claim that everyone embellishes their CV. There are two points to this. His example lends permission to others to falsify their academic and work history records, for any reason whatsoever. It also fortifies the kind of cynics who cheerily demean the credibility of politicians and democratic process by saying that all politicians lie, so what’s the big deal with Santos? That seems to be the view of the Republican Party leadership who so far have not condemned Santos. He is, of course, a supporter of most of Donald Trump’s MAGA positions and the party fears the wrath of this faction if they were to prevent Santos from entering Congress.

The trouble is, when we see this level of impunity in the political sphere, we are primed to accept it elsewhere. There are indications that academics are getting used to being traduced within their own organisations. The refusal by USS trustees to acknowledge a surplus in the pension scheme is one example. In research, Dorothy Bishop points to the lack of consequences for scientists who falsify their data in journal papers. At the University of Leicester in 2021, there has been complete stonewalling against the charge that management deliberately infringed academic freedom by targeting scholars in critical management studies for redundancy, even when they made no attempt to disguise the fact. The betrayal was felt even more acutely when it was revealed that the REF environment narrative in business and management included a pledge to continue investment in this area of strength.

Let down? Gaslit? I’m not claiming there is anything as momentous as a big lie dominating the UK HE sector, but there are some warning signs we need to address. University management teams have been vested with way too much authority, as the decision-making powers of senates and academic boards have been intentionally weakened. Competition has proved a poor motivational lever for academic work. Pressure to publish, win grants and prioritise proxy measures of quality such as citations and journal impact factors has caused a distortion of academic priorities and led to an increase in research misconduct. Of course, the head of the snake is pressure to climb world rankings and somehow enact the sense of hierarchy and competition which animates managers, at the expense of the cooperation desired by academics.

At this point it is cheering to see any rebalancing of the fulcrum towards sanity and integrity. James Wisdon, Lizzie Gadd and Stephen Curry have been revisiting The Metric Tide review on responsible use of metrics in research evaluation. Together with the INORMS research evaluation group, there is now a push to moderate the influence of global rankings on university behaviors and a conversation is beginning on how to persuade universities not to measure their performance by single indictors nor by a composite overall score. See the #MoreThanOurRank hashtag on Twitter and Mastodon. This is a fantastic initiative from actual practitioners who don’t position themselves as ‘management’.

Just as there is a legitimation crisis in politics, there has been a recent collapse in the credibility of the CEO class. Despite their probable approval of ‘bossism’, I imagine VCs would not want to emulate the public humiliation of the CEOs of Twitter, Theranos, FTX or the Trump Organisation. It’s time to deal with the fact that universities are not organisations where every system can be optimised, where every measure is above average and every employee is ‘hardcore’. There are communities to serve, not just worlds to dominate. A little humility and an injection of reality might be just what we need. Happy 2023.

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