Honesty in Public Discourse


1. The Absence of Truth
2. - The Presence of Lies: The Long and the Short of It
3. - Giving Truth and Democracy Short Shrift

1. The Absence of Truth

"You Lie!" There has been endless debate over Rep. Wilson's uncivil outburst during President Obama's speech to the joint session of Congress. Most agree it was uncivil, it has been clearly established that Wilson's allegation was incorrect, and now we are into the question of whether it was motivated by racism. But there is another issue that deserves to be discussed, and this incident brings it to the fore.

President Obama was not lying, but the fact is that there is an increasing disregard for the truth by public figures, and indeed the media. That is actually putting it politely. Politicians and those engaging in the public discourse increasingly lie, shamelessly, outrageously, and most important, with apparent impunity. From allegations about "death panels", that President Obama is Muslim, right through to much more important lies, like those that grounded the case for the invasion of Iraq. President Bush and Dick Cheney may protest until the cows come home that it was just faulty intelligence, but it has been close to proven that there were some facts, such as the claim that Iraq had sought Uranium from Niger, that were known to be false when solemnly represented to the American people and the world.

Aside from the blatant lying, there is the related distortion of history, science, and every other rational pursuit in the effort to advance positions and undermine the arguments of political adversaries. And of course, the media, particularly the TV media and the bloggosphere, are increasingly playing the role of combatants in the political forum, rather than objective reporters and analysts of news. So we had the Bush administration itself single-mindedly sabotaging the science surrounding global warming, and now we have the conservative elements, including Fox News, likening President Obama to Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, insuinuating that he is liberal, a communist, and a fascist, exploiting the ignorance of viewers who don't understand the difference.

While everyone goes on about "civility", I want to suggest that we should be even more concerned about the lack of honesty. Sure, there are mechanisms like Factcheck.org, and CNN and others from time to time subject political assertions to scrutiny - but there is seldom any real condemnation of lying and distortion. Only the likes of Jon Stewart really hammers people. So politicians, and the likes of Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck, will continue to lie, based on the cynical calculus that there is little downside and lots of upside.

There is a wonderful scene in Orwell's 1984, in which Smith is morosely sitting in the cafeteria when the announcement is made that, due to sound government policy and recent progress in the war, the chocolate ration "will be increased from 5 ounces to 3 ounces." Smith is incredulous as people all around him cheer at the news, and wonders if there is no one else who recognizes the lie, or whether they are all just too scared to let on. What's our excuse? It is time to find ways to demand the truth, and effectively raise the costs of lying, in our public discourse. - Gamma.

2. - The Presence of Lies: The Long and the Short of It.

The Long of It:

If only I could tip my chair back, pipe in hand, cardigan pulled tight and lament the decline of the old ways of honesty and civility. But that is all bunkum, hokum and humbug. Deliberate falsehoods and nasty personal attacks have been used in politics forever to derail the conversation from ideas to insult, and to do mischief to well-intentioned plans.

The truth is that untruth has a hallowed place in our political and civil discourse. It reflects our commitment to freedom of expression and the marketplace of ideas. Over time, the truth should win out and it usually does.

Lack of civility is equally ingrained. While the clash of ideas and ideals is exciting and can reshape nations and cultures, the clash of personalities can be ever more potent and lasting. Minor hurts and slights can lead to greater schisms which can have dramatic effect on world events. What if Trotsky and Lenin could have just gotten along? All politics is personal, deeply personal at that.

I can't help but to wonder if dishonesty, incivility and insult are not an essential part of democratic discourse. They are part of the package. Maybe it is as simple as that an idea or political movement or cultural force that has been tempered by a nasty fight emerges as stronger and better respected. And maybe the inverse is true as well, ideas that can't withstand these scurrilous attacks aren't worth having around. I sometimes wonder about the the theory of evolution, not because it is not a great and true idea, but simply because it keeps getting bitch-slapped by creationists.

It is, like most things of importance, a little like hockey. The nifty passes and fancy footwork are great. We all love watching them, but sometimes you have to get your hands dirty. This is sometimes referred to as the John Tonelli principle. Watch him at :30 of this clip of the 1984 Canada Cup. Marketplace of ideas on ice, baby! But I digress...

The great leaders get this. They can take a punch - some even relish it. And they can deliver one when necessary. It is one of the things I have liked about Obama from the early days of his campaign. He is hard to hurt. And he is a very skillful, if subtle, counter-puncher. Watch him take out Clinton by talking about Reagan. It's the political equivalent of Bruce Lee's one inch punch. It is also, in its own way, a lie. But it is a good one and it was skillfully delivered.

Transformation, the essence of leadership, is a challenge to the status quo and it can hurt people and destroy the lives and the structures to which they cleave, notwithstanding the rightness of wrongness of the issue. Asking them not to lie is clearly anti-democratic. Asking them to be civil may be similarly at odds with essence of our democratic institutions.

The Short of It:

Grow a pair, Sally. - Beta.

3. - Giving Truth and Democracy Short Shrift

So Beta concludes that "asking leaders not to lie is clearly undemocratic". This is reached via a rambling saunter through premises ranging from the value of tradition ("but its always been like that!"), through some kind of intellectual Darwinism ("ideas that can't survive dishonest attacks are worthless"), and the related promotion of the market place of ideas ("the truth will emerge victorious"), to utterly ludicrous analogies to the game of hockey ("lying is like digging the puck out of the corner"?!).

The notion that lies serve to somehow temper the truth is just silly. The market place of ideas, on the other hand, is a more valid argument, being part of the justification for freedom of expression that dates back to Mill. But the Supreme Court of Canada, in examining the balance between freedom of expression and the criminalizing of hate speech, accepted that untruths can prevail, looking in particular at how systemic lies, packaged by the sophisticated propaganda machine of Nazi Germany, were important features of a process that ended in the Holocaust. The truth does not always win out, and some intervention is sometimes warranted.

But my initial point was not that we should somehow outlaw dishonesty generally. I was focusing on lies by political leaders and the press. Which brings us to the conclusion: "asking leaders not to lie is clearly undemocratic". This is rubbish. Democracy, in theory, relies upon the exercise of public choices based on sound information about the options available. That is why the role of the fourth estate is considered so important.

The fact that we are so often lied to by both politicians and the press, frequently on issues as dire as war and peace, is reason to question the legitimacy of our democracy, not a justification for dishonesty in public life. And if one really must have a sporting analogy for the harms of dishonesty to democratic discourse, it is surely Maradona's "Hand of God" goal against England in the 1986 World Cup. - Gamma



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