Friday, August 02, 2019

Truth in politics - a counter-intuitive view

In this post I am going to put forward two apparently contradictory arguments

1) The effort people at every level and every part of the political spectrum make to ensure that the statements they make are fair and accurate has decreased, is decreasing, and ought to be increased.

2) People are far too ready to accuse others of lying on inadequate grounds: calling someone a liar is not something which should ever be done lightly and it too often has been.

A person hearing those two opinions might respond with a comment like "If you think too many people are telling lies, why don't you want us to call them out on it?"

My reply would be that if the problem is too many false statement flying around, and you want to do something about it, setting yourself up as a judge of the honesty of others is not always the best strategy, and it certainly isn't a good idea to do it without making sure your own accusations are fair. and just.

In my humble opinion the apparent increase in people accusing one another of lying is both a consequence and a driver of the increase in people making untrue statements.

Those who perceive a steady flow of lies from people who hold different opinions will inevitably be tempted to call them out.

Unfortunately this can be very counterproductive. I know from bitter experience that anyone involved in politics who is remotely prominent can expect to have untrue things said about them, and one of those is that you will be accused of lying when you're not.

This inevitably devalues the impact of any accusation of lying.

I don't imagine there will be too many politicians or journalists who become liars on the basis of "as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb," e.g. they are going to be accused of lying whatever they say so why bother with the truth.

But if everyone is accused of lying, the people who really are spectacularly untruthful, or those who make particular efforts to ensure that their statements conform to the facts, don't stand out so much.

Let's take an example of an event in British politics which was characterised by an egregious number of false statements on just about all sides, and frequent accusations of lying.

Both sides in the EU referendum campaign threw an awful lot of false or misleading allegations around. I criticised a lot of those statements on this blog at the time in a series of twelve posts entitled "The worst of both worlds."

Both sides were accused of lying on a frequent basis.

However, it was my honest impression, and this broadly applies to both sides, that of all the accusations of lying that were made during the campaign

1) Around half the statements during the campaign which I saw someone describe as a "lie" were, to the best of my knowledge or opinion, correct. Far from being lies or even falsehoods they were either facts which were correct or opinions which I agreed with.

2) Of those statements which were accused of being lies which I personally thought were indeed wrong, something like 80% were matters of opinion rather than fact. A reasonable person could have held those views and it is entirely possible, if not probable, that the people who had expressed those opinions genuinely believed what they were saying.

They may in my humble opinion have been wrong but they were entitled to their views and were not liars.

3) In about 10% of the instances where someone was accused of lying during the campaign - and again, this applies to both sides - the statement complained about really could objectively be described as either false or misleading in terms of actual facts.

4) Even these cases were often, like the egregious £350 million figure on the bus,  highly misleading, e.g. "A truth that's told with bad intent" rather than a direct lie. And it is also possible that some of the people who made incorrect statements had made a genuine mistake.

So at least 90% of the accusations of lying which were made during the EU referendum campaign were, in my humble opinion, unjust.

An allegation of lying makes it very difficult to continue a conversation. Unless the person so accused manages to prove themselves innocent and the allegation is withdrawn, or they admit at least a mistake and apologise, you no longer have the common ground and trust which makes discussion possible. Such allegations should never be made lightly, and the fact that you disagree, no matter how strongly, with what someone has said is not sufficient evidence to justify an accusation of bad faith.

In conclusion,

1) It is worth pointing out that even the least truthful politicians and journalists in democratic countries - for some reason a gentleman with flaming hair and a penchant for outrageous tweets springs to mind - tell the truth far more often than the leaders of dictatorships or theocracies. If Putin, Assad, Xi or the Iranian regime says one thing and the leader of any genuine democracy says something different, assume the democratic leader - in this case even if it's Trump - is more likely to be telling the truth and you'll be right nine times out of ten.

2) However, the standard of truthfulness in public life has declined and needs to be improved. No party has been immune to this decline or has a monopoly on honesty.

3) Shouting "liar" at anyone who says something you do not agree with, no matter how much you want to believe they are lying, is not a solution to this problem. If you have proof that someone has said something wrong, produce it.

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