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.
- 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.
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.
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.