Imagine This: Truth That Sells the Lie

Imagine This is a brief series about fiction and policy. Works of fiction, because their worlds are constructed by people, reflect often implicit assumptions about our own world. These assumptions allow fiction to feel ‘real’. They also provide good grounds for discussing issues with a degree of distance that — hopefully — allows us to challenge our approach.

Back by questionably popular demand, it’s another entry in Imagine This! For this one, I’m taking a look at “A Face Like Glass,” Frances Hardinge’s 2012 novel. Its portrayal of openness as having dual purposes — to deceive, as well as enlighten — is worth making explicit in discussions on national security. Plus, it’s the only book I’ve purchased on the strength of a book review alone. So there’s that.

Anyway, the world Hardinge created for “A Face Like Glass” is, in essence, a world of lies. Caverna, the subterranean setting of the novel, is big on courtly intrigue. Its authoritarian leader, the Grand Steward, is aging. The scramble for succession is imminent, if not yet entirely underway. Adding to the intrigue is one salient fact: the denizens of Caverna have complete control of their facial expressions. No look, not as much as a twitch, crosses someone’s face without being chosen for some purpose.

There’s a lot to unpack in the novel and its commentary on human expression. The most immediate bit pertains to Caverna’s class system. The underclass are not taught to express discontent and thereby kept in subjugation to the ruling elite. In that sense, it’s not far off from George Orwell’s “1984″ in its assumption that words and expressions carry immense power.

More interesting to me, though, is what Hardinge’s novel has to say about the value of being genuine. That may seem a bit weird, given that the world of Caverna is built on the pervasiveness of inauthenticity, so a bit more context is probably due.

So if selective transparency is inherently manipulative, what the hell do we do? One option is to seize agency.

The protagonist of “A Face Like Glass” is named Neverfell. She’s different. Not so much special — she’s exactly what you’d expect of a child; no chosen one to see here — but different nonetheless. She’s naïve, which makes sense given that she’s a child and all. But the main difference, the one that drives the novel’s plot, is that she cannot control the expressions on her face. When she’s mad, she looks angry. When she knows something, a glimmer of recognition streaks across her face.

In the world of Caverna with its intrigue and lies, her inability to lie (to lie convincingly, anyway) gives Neverfell value. On its face, this would seem to reflect the assumption that Truth (we’ll give it a big ‘t’ so it seems profound) may be used to expose lies and make the world a more honest place. But, uh, that’s not really the route “A Face Like Glass” takes.

Sure Neverfell can’t lie, but her inability to lie is used by those around her — and eventually by Neverfell herself — to strengthen their preferred narrative. Each word spoken or fact presented may convey a literal truth, but the end result is still deceit. And, in the novel, this feels natural! The fact that it does is testimony to Hardinge’s acknowledgment — taken to its extremes in “A Face Like Glass” — that every fact, every statement, is presented by some person for some purpose. If that feels simple or straight forward, well, it is. But it’s something that can be easy to overlook. In a policy context, particularly one related to national or international security, the ramifications for such an oversight are particularly dire.

This is most obviously clear in the case of the lead up to the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003. The argument for the war was, in part, that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction. (The Council on Foreign Relations has a good rundown of the exact arguments advanced by the Bush administration here.) In the process of making this argument, a process characterized as a “dysfunctional relationship,” the “[…] administration repeatedly called on the intelligence community to uncover more material that would contribute to the case for war.” Even within this context, however, it is striking that then-President George W. Bush authorized, according to reporting supported by court documents, the leaking of classified information “[…] in order to bolster his case for war.”

And it can happen again! Iran hawks have embraced selective transparency to successfully argue for more hardline policies against the country, including withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the subsequent re-imposition of sanctions. The rationale for withdrawing from the nuclear deal, as espoused by President Donald Trump, was Israel’s unveiling of information on Iran’s pre-deal nuclear programs and malign Iranian activity not covered by the deal (including its longstanding support for terrorist groups). Even on this latter topic, the Trump administration relied on a disingenuous transparency initiative. Their selective declassification of materials recovered in the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, which followed the completion of a congressionally-mandated declassification effort led by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), has been interpreted as an effort to link al-Qaeda to Iran as part of an argument for sinking the now-sunk Iran nuclear deal.

So if selective transparency is inherently manipulative, what the hell do we do? One option is to seize agency. For Neverfell in “A Face Like Glass,” this means acknowledging the power she holds as an arbiter of truth. By choosing the knowledge she holds onto, Neverfell is able to somewhat plan her reactions and thereby deceive in her own way.

An imperfect real-world analogue might be the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request process. By asking for information the government hasn’t elected to make widely available, anyone filing a request (assuming it’s granted) can then inform public discussion with the information they’ve received. But this is only really a half measure. First, a request can only ask for information known or suspected to exist. Second, the act of requesting the disclosure only shifts the control of the disclosure’s purpose to whomever requested it. That’s a severe limitation, as it essentially replaces one set of biases or agendas with another.

So perhaps a more valuable approach is social and legal norm building. By cultivating the expectation of transparency, each individual disclosure could have the nexus of interests surrounding it reduced. Put simply, the best way to make sure no one benefits from the selective release of information is to set (and follow!) procedures for making information writ large public to the maximum extent possible.

There are some obvious real-world limitations to this. Classification is the most obvious one, as it exists to protect the interests of the country (preserving sources of information, security concerns, etc.). But we already know the United States has an issue with overclassification and that the classification system in the United States is in need of reform. Such reform is going to have to strike a delicate balance between maximizing transparency and minimizing harm to the country’s interests.

But it’s important, critically so. While people — like the denizens of Caverna in “A Face Like Glass” — may always seek to shape a discussion’s underlying facts to suit their argument, healthy norms towards transparency may limit their success in doing so. And that’s to all our benefit: good policy is going to come out of facts considered in their totality of circumstances. The alternative? We’ve seen that show. It looks like in excess of 4,400 American lives lost and the $800 billion spent on the war in Iraq.