“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is a lie. To someone who’s being bullied verbally, as long as the bullying never crosses that line, it can be a helpful lie. You tell yourself words can’t hurt you, and reinforce that you aren’t defined by the bully’s opinion of you. You don’t let their poison into your heart, and because you believe that words can’t hurt you, they lose some of their power. You believe it, and you make it true.
But words do matter. And truth matters. There seem to be no consequences for malicious lies that get people killed, at least not to the liars themselves. Fred Clark talks about this extensively—this fantasy game where right-wing Christians falsely accuse people of horrific evils so they can view themselves as the heroes of the story, nobly standing up to the Satanic baby-killers. Today, a man walked into a restaurant and fired shots, because of the latest Satanic baby-killers lie. No one was hurt, and he was arrested, but this problem is bigger than any one person.
I cannot help but think that there should be some legal consequence for such blatantly false and dangerous accusations, something like the criminal equivalent to libel or slander. And yet, anything like that would be used as a weapon against people speaking out against the incoming administration, probably far more than it would be used to charge people who made false accusations of child rape or murder and got people killed.
So, the only thing I can suggest is that we have to be willing to call a lie a lie, and be willing to stand up for what’s true. The media, in particular, needs to get away from “critics say” and pointing out that an allegation was made without documenting that there was no shred of evidence associated with that allegation. They might have to shy away from “lie” because that implies intent, which is tricky to prove, but there’s nothing wrong with “falsely claims” or “unproven allegations.”
We cannot be a post-truth society. The human cost is too high.