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When Mislers misle themselves and us.

22 March 2013

In October 2005, Hans Blix, the former UN weapons inspector, said that the US administration misled itself and the world. He went on to qualify: “I’ve never maintained that the administration deliberately misled” the public, ”I think they misled themselves, that we can see. And then they misled the world.” How did they do so? By failing to apply critical thinking, Blix explained, and thereby over-interpreting inconclusive evidence in order to reach desired conclusions.[1]

On the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, the factors which led to the war are under renewed scrutiny (see the BBC’s latest Panorama: The Spies who fooled the world). Lord Butler is quoted as saying “There were ways in which people were misled or misled themselves at all stages.”

Adding the reflexive “oneself” to a verb such as “mislead” plays havoc with agency: who is doing what to whom. To “be misled and mislead themselves” in one and the same breath is to perform a Houdini-like prestidigitation. A similar, if milder, mischief comes into play with “to be volunteered”, or “to be suicided”, where the impersonal passive shifts agency away from the speaker and onto some nameless other. 

Since Blix, the verb “to misle” (pronounced mIs’el), has become popular slang for “to dupe” or “to lie”, and a “misler” is one who engages in such practices. By extension, “Misledia” refers to “powerful self-serving news organizations that claim to be mainstream, fair and balanced” while being intentionally misleading, and “Misinfotainment” refers to television news which combines entertainment with journalism in a way that is designed to incite emotional responses from viewers instead of providing facts.[2]

One of my favourite examples of misling is David Milliband’s article entitled ‘War on terror’ was wrong[3], in which he explains that we have been misled by language:

The idea of a “war on terror” gave the impression of a unified, transnational enemy, embodied in the figure of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. The reality is that the motivations and identities of terrorist groups are disparate.

And further:

The “war on terror” also implied that the correct response was primarily military. But as General Petraeus said to me and others in Iraq, the coalition there could not kill its way out of the problems of insurgency and civil strife.

What Milliband is saying is that there is a gulf between the meaning of these words and the reality on the ground. It’s not the policy that was at fault, or the people who coined and disseminated the term,[4] but the implicit and insidious meanings lurking in the dark crevices of language. Language led us into the wrong war, it would seem. How dangerous it is, and how fortunate we are to have leaders who can smoke out its misling and Machiavellian implications!

Now it’s up to us to apply our critical thinking and ask why the phrase “to mislead oneself” is being resurrected and disseminated just now? Could it have something to do with the Maxwellisation process currently under way before the Iraq Inquiry findings can be published? “Maxwellisation”? Oh, the delights of neologisms![5]

[1] Blix Says US misled itself.

[2] See relevant entries in The Urban Dictionary

[3] The Guardian, 15 January 2009.

[4] For the rise and fall of the term “war on terror”, see The declining use of “war on terror”, BBC News, 17 April 2007.

[5] A process by which those subject to a potential criticism are given an opportunity to make representations in response (for example, during an inquiry). See link between this term and Robert Maxwell. 


2 replies
  1. Aldo Matteucci
    Aldo Matteucci says:



    (1) any psychologist will tell you: we churn out “self-affirmation stories” by the ream. We fabulate all the time in order to reassure ourselves, and others, about how we “are in control”. Timothy D. Wilson: Strangers to ourselves will tell you: the conscious mind is more likely to be person’s “press secretary” than its CEO (pg. 47). So “misleading ourselves” (and others) is the order of the day. (2) In my 220 I pointed out the difference between “raid” and “war”. 9/11, for all its destructiveness, belonged to the category of “raids”. It could not have brought about the Caliphate, even though Al Queda may have dreamed of it (it is uncertain). Mistaking a raid for a war has deep political consequences – which I highlight, so Millibrand is not wrong in saying that the wrong term was used. (3) In my 225 I point to our habit of substituting an easy for a difficult problem, and then arguing from analogy (Katharina – here I come with the danger of analogies). Please explain…

  2. Katharina Hone
    Katharina Hone says:

    Thanks for a brilliant piece.
    Thanks for a brilliant piece. 1) My first reaction on the misled vs. mislead myself is this. Applying the logic from your example (“to volunteer” versus “to be volunteered”), the misled-debate can also be interpreted in a different way. Interestingly, and I think in contrast to you (?), I would prefer to say “decision-makers misled themselves” (not very elegant way of expressing it, but this is another matter …) to “decision-makers were mislead.” I think that just as much agency should be given to those who choose to belief a certain story as to those who choose to use a certain story strategically. In terms of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a game of shifting the blame is going on between intelligence services and politicians. Who misled whom? In this case, I would clearly prefer to argue that politicians misled themselves – at least to a certain degree. This leaves the agency with them and doesn’t allow for blaming some unnamed forces in the dark that are doing some kind of misleading to which politicians fall prey. 2) Thanks for the great quote from Milliband. In his piece, he seems to argue that the war metaphor was the wrong one and he gives te impications of the metaphor as the reason. Your comment after the quote is great. From this, I gather, that it is not the language that somehow misled politicians but those who choose to use/ accept this kind of frame for the situation. But moreover, the problem is not that the language didn’t reflect the “real” situation properly (who could say what that real situation was like?) but that this choice (!) of words had far reaching policy implications (as Milliband outlines) and consequences.

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