Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Lies, spin, and honesty

When I was five or six years old, my mother caught me in a stupid lie, and I was so ashamed that I resolved that I would never, ever tell another lie.

I took this really seriously, and by the time I was eleven I would boast, with complete sincerity, about the fact that I had not told a lie for five years. Here is the catch: on a five year old's definition of a lie I was telling the truth.

Because during that time I had not once told a direct lie - e.g. deliberately made a statement I knew to be false.

There are two categories of people who are often held to that definition of a lie - five year olds because that is what they can understand, and politicians because that is the sort of lie which can clearly be proved if you get caught.

But when I was about eleven or twelve, I heard a very wise teacher called Mr Bloxham - a very remarkable man, incidentally, a Japanese POW survivor who died a few years ago well into his nineties - questioning a fellow pupil whose story about some minor transgression did not stack up. Mr Bloxham soon established that the boy concerned had said something which, although true, was calculated to deceive and told him "So you told a lie by implication."

Listening to this conversation, I felt part of my world crash around me, because I realised that although I had not told any direct lies for six or seven years, I had become quite expert at selective use of the truth to make people think what I wanted them to think - telling what Mr Bloxham had called "a lie by implication." In the words of a famous saying usually attributed to Blake,

So I had to revisit my attitude to truth, and try to live up to a higher standard of not trying to deceive people. And the first thing which went with that was to stop claiming not to have told and lies for six years, which took a certain amount of effort when the subject next came up, though fortunately for me the conversation when  I had to do that was with people who had heard Mr Bloxham's conversation.

A few days ago in a post on this blog called "Trust and Deference" I responded to Phil Collin's recent Times article about trust in politicians and expressed the view that most politicians very rarely tell direct lies because getting caught doing so can be career terminating.

I stand by that opinion, but there are exceptions, and I think society has a problem with the kind of deception which Charles Bloxham called "lying by implication" and William Blake "a truth that's told with bad intent" e.g. assembling statements which are individually true in a way calculated to deceive. (It's not just politicians who do this, by the way - the most brilliant example of the technique which I ever saw at a public meeting came from a doctor representing the BMA many years ago.)

As a counterbalance to what I wrote a few days ago, there is an article on the  New York Post website about lying, particularly by politicians which talks about the corrosive effect of dishonesty.

One of the things which an honest politician will admit is that there are a very, very small number of instances where a lie is morally justified.

The classic example is if you are living under the Nazi occupation and the SS ask if you know where any Jews are hiding. Another would be where there is about to be a military action and giving the true answer to a question might put the lives of British soldiers, sailors or airmen in danger.

But aside from that sort of extreme circumstance, we need more honesty in politics. And one example of the honesty we need is not to be too quick to accuse someone of lying just because they say something you don't think is true, if there is any possibility that they themselves might believe it.


Jim said...

THere is often Lying by ommission as well.

Ok take this quote,

[Norway are not members of the EU], they are members of the EEA. For this they pay a sum to the EEA. [They do enjoy full access to the EEA, though this means they do have to pay] a sum towards the fund (though this is much less the cost of full EU Membership. They have a seat at the tables where the regulation specific to the EEA are set, and they have a lot more influence or say than Each individual EU Member state would have in the legislation, [however, they have No say] in how its packaged and shipped thoughout the EEA via the EU.

now just piece together the bits in square brackets.

Norway are not members of the EU.....They do enjoy full access to the EEA, though this means they do have to pay.....however, they have No say.

this is a lie by omission, (but does it sound familiar?).

Chris Whiteside said...

I'm not going to re-fight the whole of the debate we have already had about this, I completely and totally disagree that Norway have "a lot more influence" on any aspect of EU trade deals than a member state would have.

On some technical aspects they have roughly the same say. On many other aspects they have no vote and what little influence they have is by influencing those member states like Britain which listen to them, which is why some Norwegian government ministers have been expressing the hope that Britain does not leave.

I do not believe that there is any aspect of EU policy, law or deals on which other EEA members like Norway have more influence than an EU member.

Jim said...

Well that is understandable, who would want to refight a battle they already lost once. :-)