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Not Every Untruth Is A Lie

Courtesy ETACherry2013

Courtesy ETACherry2013

A guest post by Dan Rowden

As much as we rightly desire that our political leaders – and representatives in general – exhibit as high a degree of propriety as we can sensibly demand, I can’t help but wonder if we haven’t gone too far in those demands.  Or, that we haven’t changed the rules in such a way as to make compliance almost impossible.

I wonder if we haven’t become a little hysterical about the whole issue of politicians “lying” to us. Actually, I think I just lied – I don’t really wonder, I’m in fact quite convinced we have. Let me expand and explain by way of analogy:

A parent promises their child a bike for Christmas, based on the fact they receive a Christmas bonus from their job every year and can thereby afford the gift. Christmas comes around but the bonus doesn’t materialise. Things are tough that year. Is the parent a “liar” for not being able to provide the bike?

Do we freely refer to and think of ourselves, and others, as liars every time an expectation is subverted by circumstance or that something we said turns out to be false? No, of course, we don’t. Such an attitude and behaviour would be grossly unreasonable.

So, why do we hold politicians to a standard that we would never expect of our friends or ourselves? It’s ridiculous to suggest that we’re entitled to do so because politicians are in positions of leadership and privilege.

What sort of person affords themselves the right to demand a higher standard of virtue of others than they are prepared to adopt themselves? It’s an extravagant arrogance to demand others be morally better than ourselves, whatever their station in life.

Sometimes, in our indecent haste to judge everything politicians utter, we unwittingly expand the meaning of “lying” beyond that which is reasonable and fair. A lie is a conscious and intentional misrepresentation of what a person knows to be the truth, or of what they really believe. There are quite a few things that don’t meet the definitional criteria of “lies” that we are nevertheless busily labeling that way:

1.  A statement that does not accord with our perception of what is true is not automatically a lie. The person issuing such a statement must know that the content is false for it to be a lie. This is no minor point. Remember we’re calling someone a “liar” here, with all the negative cultural force that entails. Data, facts, and events are all open to interpretation, sometimes widely disparate interpretation.

For example, I very recently saw a news item on TV saying that the number of “sickies” taken in Australia has fallen. The reason given for this fact was that the Aussie “work ethic” has re-emerged in all its glory. My own interpretation of this fact is that the near-complete casualisation of the workforce has meant that workers can no longer afford to take sick days – even when they’re genuinely ill.

Who’s right? I mean, I’m pretty confident I am but I’m not going to call the other commentator a liar because he suggested something that I think is patently wrong, or perhaps even a deliberate, politically motivated distortion.

Things are not always clear-cut.

Also, many politicians are so deeply ideologically driven that they can’t be expected to have a clear or objective perspective on matters. But bias isn’t mendacity in and of itself. Neither is stupidity. They are simply psychological forces that tend to produce distortion. Bob Katter springs to mind for some reason that I probably couldn’t justify.

2.  A subverted expectation or undertaking is not a lie. It may technically be a “broken promise” but a broken promise is not a lie unless it was known by the person making the promise that it could not be delivered.

Broken promises are part and parcel of human experience and the gravity we grant them in the political sphere has become almost surreal, especially in the face of constant pressure from various social groups for politicians to be seen to be doing things.

If we’re going to place our representatives under that constant pressure we have to expect that all sorts of overly optimistic undertakings will be offered, and broken promises the inevitable result.

  1. Changing one’s mind in response to changing circumstances is not lying and pragmatism and deceit should never be so much as implicitly linked in our minds.

  2. Errors of perception are not lies. When John Howard introduced the GST he was asked in an interview with Alan Jones of Radio 2UE, 14 August 1998 if the number of pages in the Tax Act would be reduced as a result of its introduction. He said it would. He was wrong.  Did Howard lie or did he honestly but mistakenly believe that would be the outcome?

Do we still recognize the difference between a statement of belief and something asserted as fact? Howard may well have lied on that occasion. He may well have known what he said was false. We’ll never know. We are not, after all, psychic.

I find it intellectually and morally wrong to accuse someone of lying in a case like that – unless we can provide evidence that the person knew what they’d said was false.

5.  Not everything that comes out of Tony Abbott’s mouth is automatically a lie. Sometimes he’s just belching.

But seriously, I feel we have to rethink our attitude towards the standards we demand of our politicians and of our concept of what is and is not an actual lie. The notion has become entirely liquid while the moral force of the alleged crime has remained quite solid.

We’ve just witnessed the fading of a stellar political career largely on the basis of an accusation of deceit, one wholly contrived and particularly lubricious. I refer, of course, to the hapless Julia Gillard and the “carbon tax” cock-and-bull.  Do we want to plumb those depths? I hope not. You can’t claim the moral high ground while your hands are raised and full of mud.

Do we need to take the accusation of lying and toss it around like confetti in our attempt to show that a particular politician has a weak grip on reality, or perhaps even an openly flagrant disregard for it? I don’t think so. This is not to say that obvious and demonstrable lies ought not to be exposed and labelled as such. They most assuredly should. It’s just that it seems lazy to blithely dismiss someone by saying they have lied.

It’s arguably far better and more productive to show why a given statement bares little relationship to what is true – or what we perceive as true. That way you get to simultaneously reinforce your perception whilst minimising theirs. If we can’t do that then what merit does our accusation of mendacity actually have in the first place?

Finally, with particular respect to Tony Abbott – yes, he’s a fibster; we know that. Has there ever been in our political history a finer artiste in the craft of everything from outrageous misrepresentation to the paltriest tarradiddle? Hard to say, but I doubt it.

I don’t believe, however, this grants us carte blanche to call him a liar on a daily basis. I think if we reach saturation point (and perhaps we have?) the accusation will entirely lose its force and utility. I fear it’s, in fact, becoming an empty mantra – almost an Abbott-esque slogan.

I think it’s far wiser to concentrate on his ineptitude and inability to intellectually cope with the demands of high office and the task of properly weaving his mind around the complex fabric of policy detail.

The truth is people expect politicians to fib about things and will tolerate a certain type and degree of it. We don’t mind lies so much, especially if they make us feel good or reassure us in some way or if it’s just too hard for us to think about.

Why Politicians Lie (and Why We Let Them Get Away With It).

It’s better to present Tony Abbott as unequipped and unskilled rather than untruthful because even then his seductive fibs will lack credibility and power.

Dan Rowden is a freelance writer and philosopher who has been active in philosophical and political discourse since Malcolm Turnbull invented the Internet in Australia. For the last 15 years, he has contributed to and administered Internet philosophy forums. Politics is a secondary interest, but he recognises moments of significance in Australia’s political history and for him, this is very definitely one of them.



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  1. Rebecca Brown (@CloudButt3rfly)

    Finally, a sensible approach! I keep trying to explain to my BF that nobody can predict the future. People frequently have to change plans all the time and never consider it for a moment to be deliberately dishonest. Shades of grey people…shades of grey. Mature adults may have very well developed views on particular issues, but real life is made of compromises and the most serious moral issues never achieve any kind of consensus.
    The charges of ‘lying’ and ‘backstabbing’ repeatedly flung by turns at Julia Gillard, Tony Abbot and Kevin Rudd are simply meaningless but I guess they have been repeated so often that they become a catchphrase for anyone supporting a certain side or another. Its groupthink, and very effective among the low interest voter. Tantrums over ‘he said/ she said’ are actually very childish. Some people complain about a Nanny state but the vast majority seem to welcome it. They would prefer the comfort of repeated and consistent slogans instead of the dynamic political reality. Instead of investigating issues for themselves, they listen to what they are told, and then lash out when new information comes to light. They even lash out at the MS media, for being shallow etc but completely fail at doing any independent research.

  2. jagman48

    Love the Malcolm Turnball comment.

  3. Saaq Madiq

    Sorry pal but you lost me when you said Julia Gillard was “hapless”. What utter bullshit, all you are doing is repeating Abbott and the mendacious MSM. And no Tony doesn’t just fib, the words from his own mouth said he couldn’t be trusted unless it was written down (remember the Kerry O’Brien interview). You are just making excuses like the line that Oh that’s just Tony being Tony.
    Anthony is a liar, a bully and a coward and no amount of weasel words can change that. I am heartily sick of people trying to defend this creep. Just take a bit of time, do some research and see just how many lies have come out of Anthony’s mouth over the years. This bloke is serial liar and no amount of sugar coating can change that pal.

  4. Dan Rowden

    Hapless: unlucky; luckless; unfortunate.

    It’s a pity people don’t read an article before offering comment, but, that’s life I suppose.

  5. mikisdad

    Thanks Michael – some real food for thought in Dan’s article. I know that, on occasion, I have been guilty of the excess to which he refers and the passion of many in the current political climate is rife for this sort of mistake.

    An implicitly related issue it raises for me is that of how language is used and understood and why (in my opinion) whilst not being a purist, I do believe that those who use words as a stock-in-trade should understand the vocabulary that they use and be capable of syntactical accuracy.

    I am regularly exposed to those who claim that only content (by which they apparently mean the “intent” of that content) is important. Yet, surely, surmising what is meant on the basis only of one’s own political view and what one perceives to be the political view of someone else, is open to significant error, especially if words are misused or sentences structured so that they *don’t* actually say what is intended.

    A refreshing attribute of Dan’s article is that it is well written. No, it may not be Faulkner or Hemingway, or Dickens but his article has clarity of expression as well as of thought. There is an aspect of it that I would question but regardless of how that question was answered it would not undermine Dan’s fundamental argument.

    It is this sort of clarity, not to mention disinterested perspective, of which we could well do with more.

  6. Rob

    He’s wrong, wrong, wrong.
    Wrong on climate. Wrong on economics, wrong on science and wrong as a politician.

    And the front bench is just plain incompetent.
    Haven’t asked questions about their own portfolios in 4 years. No audited figures last election. Been a heartbeat away from governing for 3 years but continue to lack figures or policies.
    These white ants do not deserve power.

  7. Alice Weber

    Why is it that what you have written is not obvious to all? Thank you.

  8. diannaart

    Terrific article, Michael Taylor.

    Hopefully, more people will consider your valid point of outright lies and the times when a change in circumstance is required – such as negotiating with other elected politicians to win government as Gillard did when she won the 2010 election.

    That we as parents, or as politicians can not always do for those for whom we are responsible is simply a fact of life.

    We must hone our observational skills and perceive where compromise was necessary from a completely empty promise made purely for purposes of victory and nothing else.

    Since when was this supposed to be easy, clear-cut and black and white?

  9. Fed up

    My daughter has similar problems with her second daughters fifth birthday next month.

    Promise her a big one like her older sister. Owing to being short of money at this time, she is doing everything in her power to talk her out of the big party, with little luck. Not having the money, does not count with her. Told her mother to get more.

    Did she lie to my little Emily, or is it true that circumstances has changed?

    Of course she did not. To add to her problem, it is probably the first time, my daughter has not been able to keep her promise to either child. Yes, they are spoilt.

  10. Fed up

    I do consider it to be lie, when a politician refuses to give you the costings or details of policies.

    That is lying by omission, which I believe that Abbott is in the process of doing now.

    Yes, he is being deliberate in denying us the information to make a confirmed decision when we vote.

    To add salt to the wound, he is treating us, as idiots, when he does so.

  11. Fed up

    PS.Abbott also thinks he is being clever.

  12. diannaart

    Tony Abbott believes he can fool enough people for long enough to win the election.

    Agree with your point about lying by ommission, which is nothing more than misrepresentation AKA fraud.

  13. Fed up

    Sadly, I am inclined to believe that Abbott first response to most things, when caught out is to lie. One only gets the truth when the evidence presented to him, gives him no longer option. The visit to Pell and before he deposed Turnbull,to Howard, is an example of this behavior. There was no need to lie, either time.

    I am sure it would not be hard to come up with numerous examples. With natural liars, one soon learns one cannot trust them.

  14. Fed up

    Another form of a politician lying, one that Howard perfected, is ensuring that those around you make sure you are not told anything that could have mean embarrassment.

    Two examples. Could be the Tampa, and the Iraqi wheat sales to Hussein. Let off the hook, because they did not know or remember. In spite of the fact, it was their job to know.

  15. Fed up

    Another one that is a liked by Abbott, is not to read important documentation such as the Justice Rare Judgement, then denying that Bough had done wrong. Wonder if he has read it since. In other words, making sure you do not seek the facts.

  16. Fed up

    By the way. Rudd did not lie over the weekend when he said Labor had no mandate to bring in a carbon tax.

    That is true, as Gillard did not bring one in.

    Even PM Rudd’s ETS had a fixed cost in the bringing or moving onto one, regulated by the market.

    PM Rudd was being dishonest in the way he worded his denouncement in an attempt to maker Gillard look bad.

    Yes. There are many ways of lying.

  17. Misst

    Maybe I’m wrong, but I thought we could trace back the “LIAR LIAR” epidemic to Abbott, can’t remember it being Labor screaming that out first! I don’t mean just contradictions, I mean demonising with that word “liar” over and over. Since I believe Abbott started it I also believe he should take what he gets!

    Yes I suppose there is room to question the term, making promises and changing circumstances, for instance, but surely a bare faced lie is a lie. When Abbott denied meeting Pell for instance. I was also flabbergasted in the last debate when he claimed to have opposed Work Choices!! I can’t call it a bare faced lie but I just can’t see Tony standing against all his coalition mates and begging for workers to get a fairer go! I’d like to see proof of that one.

    I’d really like to concede that overuse of the word ‘liar’ as an attacking tactic could diminish the effect. The trouble is it might for Labor, but maybe the Coalition can get away with it because of their media pals?

  18. Matthew Joyce

    Yeah, you lost me when you began to try and compare our own standards with that of politicians. Thanks for knowing my personal level of standards by the way… I love it when journalists speak for me, just makes me feel all gooey inside. The truth is we hold any celebrity to a higher standard than our own, and face it, politicians are celebrity. If a football player makes a wrong move they are criticised and often ejected from the game, why then when politicians make so many mistakes that they get to keep playing?

  19. cassilva48

    Then they should preface their promises, with a proviso, that providing that the figures are accurate and we are not stymied in the Senate we will fulfill our promises. The current raucous in the community is that Tony Abbott is promising policy changes that will require robbing Peter to pay Paul, so no one knows who are the the Peters and who are the Pauls.

  20. cassilva48

    Heard on the Financial Review program that the Libs will introduce a GST on all online purchases over $100 (currently at $1000). What else is under ‘review’ I would ask. What about a GST on all imported fresh and canned goods? We all know who Jerry will be voting for.

  21. jagman48

    I am 65 years old and voted (and been a member) labor all my life. I am so sad to think that Abbott will get in this time. He worries me so much. I am so afraid that my (yes I do mean mine) lifestyle will need to change dramatically. Please voters don’t let me down.

  22. johnlord2013

    Not unlike my piece. And that’s the truth.

  23. mikisdad

    It would appear that many posters here have allowed their passion and preoccupation with Tony Abbott’s considerable failings to get in the way of responding to what the article actually articulate, as opposed to what is uppermost in their minds. It seems to me that such a reaction is, in itself, vindication of the points made in Dan Rowden’s article.

  24. jagman48

    Of course this conversation has skewed away from the original thread. On any matter open to communication it does. At least this one hasn’t been taken up by the trolls.

  25. Möbius Ecko

    I’m with Rebecca, Alice and mikisdad.

    Well elucidated Dan. And for the record I’m guilty of calling first Howard and now Abbott liars more times than I can ever count, and Labor pollies haven’t been free of my liar accusation either.

  26. ()

    Good article! Let me explore just one point. You say:

    Data, facts and events are all open to interpretation, sometimes widely disparate interpretation

    Indeed! It’s because people are ‘meaning makers’. They don’t ‘receive’ meanings they ‘give’ them. And they do it every day in every way.

    People engage the world with a whole set of ‘theories’ broadly defines to include ‘mental constructs’, ‘world views’ and the like. It’s these ‘theories’ which are used to identify/pick out ‘facts’ and having done so will then cause ‘meanings’ to be given.

    Historians, for example, use their ‘theories’ to select ‘facts’ (from an almost infinite number) and then give value (meanings) to such facts.

    It’s historians who make history. History is subjective (in the final analysis). It’s why we have A history rather than THE history.

    Just sayin …

    And I know people will see it differently. They will give a different ‘meaning’ to what I write.

  27. Bob Evans

    The shock jocks enjoyed lots of mileage out of calling Gillard “Juliar”. And it was an entirely manufactured lie.

  28. Arthur Daley Esq.

    Pssst, tell Tone I can do him a nice line in pre-owned Indonesian fishing vessels : special price for the Liberal Party, on the QT………..

  29. Ralf Kluin

    Dan, I just read your article, and the salient point I’ve taken from it has nothing to do with ‘deliberately’ lying, that is another matter entirely, but, the role of any political ‘individual’ party member, elected to govern the State-Nation. We live by choice in a market based Capitalist society in which owners, employed workers and all consumers shape behaviour in the marketplace. Behind these market forces lie other very significant levels of constant change which emanate from the nature of the system, some of us think we understand. For example, the constant reorganisation of work skills and work organisation, of managerial structures, of technical equipment, all governed by the effort to accumulate capital as effectively as possible. But lying, well, lying in this kind of capitalist environment is a process, one that is more recognisable under an ABBott led LNP than under a RUdd led ALP. The proof of my observations is easily discovered in the pages of The Daily Telegraph. The lies told in the pages have never been refuted by Mr Abbott MP.

  30. Fed up

    So spending money on schools and even insulation, is not a investment in the future.

  31. Fed up

    According to the Libs, only roads count.

  32. Ralf Kluin

    John Maynard Keynes led a group of economists who worked during the 1930s to give policy makers better tools to avoid a repeat of the Great Depression. The Rudd ALP Government used his economic tools in 2008, to shield Australians from another great depression. Today, Abbott is telling Australians that the decisions taken by Rudd were irresponsible and a waste of taxes. For example, Abbott is saying that the $900cheques sent to people at that time was a dereliction of public responsibility. Many of us have even witnessed Hockey on Q&A say so. Can anyone imagine being somewhere in Australia or overseas, away from home and family in 2008? They go to an ATM in Alice Springs or London to draw out some money to buy a sandwich or pay for accommodation, and the screen reads. “NO Funds AVAILABLE”! A run on the Australian Banking system has shut the banks down. Rudd took Abbott’s advice and failed to back the banks, to put money into peoples accounts, to maintain private works, building school halls and installing insulation into peoples homes and so on. Banks are now shut and Australians have no money. We as a society have no money with which we trade our services. We are Insolvent! Contractors cannot fulfil orders, cannot pay wages. We listened to Tony Abbott MP. Can anyone see the lie we are being fed by the Murdoch-Abbott-LNP troika?

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