Winslow Homer painting of a man hewing wheat with a scythe.

2. Plausible Deniability

Feb 8, 2022

If you are doing something naughty, it is better to keep it secret. Smart criminals hide their movements, actions, and intentions as a way of life.

Let us call this Plausible Deniability. This is how you get mob bosses, disgraced corporate executives, and war criminals living free and open. They have plausible deniability in the eyes of the law, which, in my opinion, is largely designed to protect society's biggest criminals, who steal the labor, health, and wellbeing of the working class.

  • Plausible deniability is Anna Delvey skipping out on hotel bill after hotel bill, saying that her dad already sent the money from Europe.
  • Plausible deniability is Johnson & Johnson selling the opium they grow in Tasmania to the American people, using the Sackler's and Purdue pharma as a passthrough.
  • Plausible deniability is the theft and accompanying genocide that was perpetrated by European nobility on the Indigenous peoples of the Americas.

Plausible deniability happens on a grand scale, but also at a very personal level. Your passive aggressive friend is deploying plausible deniability. Your ex used plausible deniability when they lied to you, and your school friends deployed plausible deniability when they made fun of you then said, "It's just a joke".

Plausible deniability is everywhere. It's all around us. But it's not just happening to us, you and I engage in it as well.  

ON us and IN us

For the 97-99% of us who are not sociopathic, humans are surprisingly resistant to inducing harm to others. That is, unless you can condition us to believe that we are part of a GOOD group, and that others are part of a BAD group. Then we are willing to dehumanize, steal and kill.

This is plausible deniability. It works on us, but in us too.

And like the old man said,

The best agent is an unconscious agent.                                - William S. Burroughs
Burroughs in the 1980s
William Burroughs in the 1980s, many, many years after shooting his wife in the head. Photo Credit: Chuck Patch

Columbus and Plausible Deniability

Almost immediately from first contact, Cristopher Columbus began imagining the people of the new world to be his inferiors, thus making their exploitation psychologically easier for himself and his men.

Old illustration of Columbus and his men meeting Indigenous peoples of the Americas.
Taíno people meeting Christopher Columbus and crew. Credit: Library of Congress
They appeared to me to be a very poor people in all respects. They go about as naked as the day they were born, even the women... I believe they would readily become Christians. - Christopher Columbus

No regard for the Taíno people. In a single half-page of his journal, Columbus suggests converting the Taíno, bringing them into servitude, and tricking them into supplying him with gold.

This is quintessentially psychopathic thinking, that would indeed spark a genocide. But because he was backed by a pope and a king, Columbus had no doubt that his actions were ordained by god.

Plausible deniability.

We're all Victims of Plausible Deniability

We are naturally empathetic creatures... an evolutionary advantage when you depend upon one another for survival... so our brains will do everything they can to protect us from the pain we cause by minimizing, distorting, and denying the true story.

Despite our proclivity to absolve ourselves of our own crime, we are also, with work and bravery, able to acknowledge the damage we cause, and not let it paralyze us. Our actions are not strictly good or strictly bad. Their true ramifications are not perceptible to us. But they are clearly much more than a simple good or bad.

It is inevitable that your actions will hurt other beings. Acknowledge it, so you can try not to do it again. As another wise old man said,

"Not everything faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced."  - James Baldwin
Baldwin in 1969
James Baldwin moved back to The United States from Europe in the mid 50s after the murder of Emmett Till and the stirrings of the civil rights movement. He returned in part because he felt like he was running away from himself.

Having experimented with not giving two shits about anybody but myself, and also with trying to live with a full heart,  I find it more satisfying to try and acknowledge and minimize the harm I do to others.

But be aware. Most people cannot see the damage they do. We are conditioned from early childhood to see only in black and white. Good and bad. We hide the complexity of our own actions from ourselves.

We do not imagine that we engage in plausible deniability, but we all do.

Nothing in this world is as simple as black or white. That's fundamentally not how the world works. There is always bad in the good, and good in the bad.

Plausible deniability is the tool we use to hide the darkness that we do, whether that's our collective destruction of our natural world, or a murderer trying to justify their crime.  

Let others run around justifying their every action to themselves and others. The wise heart knows they break a blade of grass with every step they take, so they learn to tread lightly.

Plausible Deniability is a Tool for Hiding Crime

Criminals at all levels use plausible deniability to hide the harm they do from others and from themselves.


This cop stalks this man then arrests him! #thinblueline #acab #ftp #phillycop #1312 #thinblue #whypeoplehatecops they’ll never change!

♬ original sound - jamesmadisonaudits
This racist cop does not see himself how we see him. His belief structure gives him plausible deniability, which protects him from seeing his own ugliness. 

Methods of Creating Plausible Deniability

  • Muddled Ownership (trusts, corporations, and legalese)
  • No Evidence of Communication (no paper trail)
  • Layers of Bureacracy (intermediaries)
  • Temporal and spatial distance
  • 'Lost in Translation' (cross-jurisdictional activity)
  • Dehumanization (failure to acknowledge rights and needs of others)
  • Co-opting (redirecting someone's purpose and message)
  • Frame Control (what's out of the picture doesn't exist)

To get explicit for a second, our entire global system is built on plausible deniability. The very concept of a corporation is to hide who actually owns it, and to shield them from culpability for that corporation's actions.

Banks do business with criminals all the time. All big money, is to some degree, criminal. If you look back far enough, or look deep enough, there is exploitation, if not outright theft and murder, integral to the growth of every large fortune on earth.

Most people would rather not think about this, but you cannot hope to have any honest understanding of how our world works without knowing this.

The system we live under is fundamentally criminal, designed to protect some, while exploiting most.

In every industry on earth we're dealing with criminal intent and/or stupidity. Everywhere there is belligerent resistance to fairness. From a psychological standpoint, this is only possible becasue those working to perpetuate this system live in a world papered over by plausible deniability.

If you don't see it yet, you will.

Common Methods of Manipulation

Most manipulation follows a basic formula. Governments, companies, churches, family, and conmen all use the same general strategy.

1. Credibility Hacking to gain your trust,

2. Plausible Deniability to hide and obscure their crimes,

3. Gaslighting to throw you off the scent and keep the scam going as long as possible.

Not all manipulation is conscious manipulation. Some people are just passthroughs for the manipulation of forces further afield. Some manipulators deserve pity. Some deserve anger. Some deserve mockery.