Ok guys, it’s midway through January – are your New Years Resolutions still on track? I say this with the most amount of sarcasm as possible because, seriously, I don’t care. As I scrolled through Facebook and attended holiday gatherings I realized there is nothing that generates less enthusiasm and more eye rolling than friends and family boldly proclaiming their brand new lifestyles full of virtue. It’s not that I think it’s bad you’re trying to improve your life, it’s just that I don’t believe you actually will, because, unfortunately, 88% of those who make resolutions end up failing. A cynical man might say making resolutions are the first lies of the new year, and an equally cynical man might also say all politicians are liars. Unfortunately, one cynical man is merely being depressing while the other is usually dismissing an indefensible accusation against a politician they happen to support. It is the latter that is especially damaging to our society as it ends rational discourse and transfers even more power from “We the People” to the politicians we have elected to serve us.
As we enter this election cycle two things are for sure, politicians will lie and politicians will have to confront lies they made over the course of their career. If you are reading this I know you consider yourself an “informed voter” and, like me, you will be tasked with personally sorting through the wide range of lies. And I mean a wide range. On PolitiFact they have boiled down lying into a myriad of categories: true, mostly true, half true, mostly false, false, pants on fire. While Aristotle refused to comment on lying – as anyone who advocated lying could never be believed – St. Augustine divided lies into nine categories in order of severity:
- Lies in religious teaching
- Lies that harm others and help no one
- Lies that harm others and help someone
- Lies told for the pleasure of lying
- Lies told to “please others in smooth discourse”
- Lies that harm no one and help someone materially
- Lies that harm no one and help someone spiritually
- Lies that harm no one and protect someone from “bodily defilement”
- A lie told in jest or by someone that believes it to be true is not a lie
George W. Bush is a liar. Barack Obama is a liar. Nothing grinds political discourse to a halt like the “L” word because it is so black and white, but, as you can observe, judging a lie is an extremely grey area. Barack Obama is a bad president because he lied to the American people. Barack Obama may have lied, but he is still a good president because all politicians lie. The truth is, politicians are human and all humans tell lies. In the book Liespotting, Pamela Meyer points to research that concludes we hear 2-3 lies in an average ten minute conversation and around 200 lies in a single day.The majority of these lies are harmless and used to smooth over communication difficulties we encounter – the college classic, “yes I would love to look at your study abroad photos.” The problem, as Meyer points out, is the “ten or so lies you hear daily that were you to know the truth would affect the decisions you make regarding your career, your business, your closest relationships, and your personal life.” As Meyer explains, once we become adept at discovering lies the tricky part is deciding which ones matter and how we should address them.
Before throwing out the “L” word throughout this election cycle I challenge you to think critically about the nature of the issue you are addressing. National politicians are not unanimously elected but are tasked with serving their constituency by making decisions that impact the most diverse population in the world that spans four time-zones. Now, this is a great conservative argument against the growth of federal power, but I think everyone can appreciate the delicate path the leaders we elect must walk. Looking down your nose at mitigating statements or purposefully ignoring them to label a politician a liar halts real discourse on complex issues; likewise, latching onto minor gotchas or rhetorical hyperbole needs to stop.
On the flip side of the coin when the “L” word is used it should be used to address issues that fall under the latter category of lies that Meyer refers to: the ones that majorly affected your voting decision and your life. Politicians serve the American people. Period. If a politician commits fraud on a major scale it should be exposed and given serious consideration. Merely dismissing their transgression with “well all politicians lie” destroys the level of accountability “We the People” wield over the leaders we choose to employ. It’s choosing to elevate the power of the individual politician over the system of government we have inherited. Politicians are powerful people because we give them that power, but when we accept lies we are relinquishing that power and elevating them above the office they hold.
Why does the informed voter, concerned with facts and issues, give into irrationality and follow the two damaging trends listed above? A lot of answers emerge when we consider Cognitive Dissonance Theory and understand how our psychological system works. As a partisan nation we are herded into two teams that try to encompass and implement our ideology and beliefs, and these behaviors almost always emerge as a by-product of these affiliations. If a Democratic politician gives into hyperbole the Republicans attack with the “L” word. If a Republican politician commits major fraud Republican voters tell Democrats that a politician lying is nothing new. When a politician that we support lies it creates dissonance in our mind because the actions of the politician don’t line up with our previously held beliefs. The dissonance must be dealt with but unfortunately changing our opinion is the last option we usually take. First we will:
- devalue the information by labeling it biased
- interpret the dissonant information in a way that is less threatening
- forget the disturbing information as quickly as possible
- find a seemingly rational reason to continue an irrational belief/attitude/behavior
I hope you keep these concepts in mind as we begin the process of holding politicians accountable this election cycle for their actions and their statements. Ultimately it is up to you, the informed voter, to decide what kind of political system you are trying to create, but I challenge you to be as intentional about examining your convictions regarding the politicians you employ as you are in championing the issues you hold dear.
Taylor Smith | Belmont University | @taylorsmith11_5