One of the more fascinating aspects of antebellum Southern culture to me is the widespread phenomenon of “giving the lie.” This particular expression refers to the exercise of one’s social power so that one affirms what is contrary to objective reality but which is not allowed to be questioned because the consequences of doing so are too dire. In the antebellum South, contradicting the claims of an elite hotspur would lead either to a duel or a beating, given the prickliness of such self-professed gentlemen. Simply because this particular aspect of Southern culture is not well known, though, and is so distinctive in how lies were enforced as social truths, does not mean that we cannot profitably examine giving the lie in other contexts. In fact, it may be observed in general that totalitarian governments as a whole enshrine some fashion of giving the lie with dire consequences to those who point out inconvenient and offensive truths. These consequences may include but are not limited to ruinous lawsuits, lengthy imprisonment, violence, and perhaps even murder. And for those who are on the lookout for such things, contemporary American society offers many opportunities for people to recognize that giving the lie, being willing to engage in violent and aggressive behavior to defend untruths, is widespread within contemporary culture, and not always in the most obvious places either.
Let us consider the example of the recently released soundtrack pop song “Don’t Call Me Angels,” sung by a trio of women, namely Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus, and Lana Del Rey. Given the respective discographies of these upstanding ladies, few people would call them angels except if they are being excessively polite or deliberately ironical. The song itself is not particularly good and would likely be entirely unremarkable except that it is the first (and perhaps only) single released from yet another reboot for the Charlie’s Angels franchise. A previous iteration of this franchise allowed another trio to note a similarly defiant tone in the big hit “Independent Women (Part 1),” which hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. It is an obvious lie for three women who are singing for a soundtrack where the characters are explicitly referred to as angels to insist on not being called angels. That is what they are. If you don’t want to be called an angel, don’t act in a movie for Charlie’s Angels or sing for its soundtrack. It is highly unlikely, after all, that these women would be called angels for their upstanding moral conduct, after all, so neither of them ought to feel as if their bad girl credibility is being ruined.
Such an obvious example of giving the lie ought to give us pause. When people who would never be called angels deliberately choose a project that would lead them to be confused as such for the sake of marketing and then give the lie that they are not to be called angels, we may safely say that it is not only lying that is involved but the desire to enshrine the lie as a social truth that no one dare contradict. We may ask what sort of consequences would result from refusing to accept the lie being presented in this song. Perhaps it would involve some sort of social media beef or being swamped online by the stands of the three women, who can be quite obnoxious in their praise for what is a terrible song and who generally talk up all three women and their songs and take on anyone who would offer even measured praise for their musical offerings. If three distinctly non-angelic women would be so violently hostile to being referred to as angels, as if that was a bad thing, even though they brought it on themselves by singing for Charlie’s Angels, we might be led to be more aware of ways in which giving the lie has become entrenched in contemporary Western culture.
One of the more obvious ways this has taken place is with regards to the obsession of choosing one’s own pronouns and then seeking to enforce this choice on everyone else. In its objective sense, personal pronouns are particularly obvious. Discovering whether or not one is male or female is a task that is often able to be done while one is still unborn and does not require a great deal of effort or perceptive observational skills at birth. Only a very small number of people fall into some sort of intermediate category, and historically speaking eunuchs were viewed as defective men because of the actions that had been taken to put them in that state. And yet despite the straightforward nature of determining one’s objective sex, there is a whole host of gender pronouns by which people may give the lie and refuse to accept or endure being referred to be that objective reality, so that one can be called (f)ae, e/eh, he, per, she, they, ve, xe, or ze/zie, among other options, depending on one’s own personal whims. It would be one thing to merely wish to deceive one’s self about objective truths, but giving the lie is a more aggressive action in that it seeks to force other people to accept an obvious lie as a social truth in order to avoid negative repercussions, and this sort of abuse of social power is certainly the case in contemporary identity politics. People are not content merely to believe lies about themselves or act in dishonest ways before the outside world, but wish to coerce others into accepting that false self-presentation without disagreement or demur. And that makes contemporary identity politics a lot like dealing with overly sensitive and prickly antebellum Southern gentlemen, a task not to be engaged by those who are lacking in courage and daring.