Monday, March 26, 2012

Lying in Politics

Hannah Arendt once said that "[t]ruthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings." True. Certainly, playing fast and loose with the truth has been common, indeed expected, in the political realm. In fact, it has been seen by those of a realist bent as fully justifiable, almost a virtue in itself, essential to success  in the Hobbesian world of international relations and in the rough-and-tumble world of domestic politics. Much could be said about this view, which (to be clear) was not Arendt's. I have always balked at pure realism, but the present occasion is not the right one to develop an argument against it. There are many such arguments in existence already, anyway. In the end, I think Bernard Williams had it about right when he argued that "decent politics" lies somewhere between  a realist cynicism for which "the business of politics ceases to be disturbed by any moral qualms" and an idealism that entails "an absurd failure to recognize that if politics is to exist as an activity at all, some moral considerations must be expected to get out of its way."

My focus here is not the refutation of realism, whether in law or politics, or the development of a more reasonable and acceptable alternative. Nor is it to insist, idealistically, that dishonesty should be removed entirely from the public sphere -- that just isn't going to happen. Rather, I want to reflect upon political lying today and some of its risks. I want to consider what happens when lying becomes too pervasive and too accepted, when its omnipresence comes to define the public sphere and our interactions in it.

In a more recent work, Williams argues that there are two central virtues of truth: accuracy and sincerity. The former asks us to seek the truth, to try to acquire correct belief, and transport it to the pool of information available to our society. The second -- sincerity -- entails saying what one actually believes. Observation of the 2011-2012 political season suggests that both of these virtues are at risk and, as a result, that our politics may be in deep trouble.

As virtually everyone recognizes, political discourse has been growing shriller and more extreme for more than a decade. In the process, the quantity of deception -- what amounts to failures in sincerity -- in political discourse has increased. What is disturbing is that we may have passed the point where politicians and their campaign operatives have any significant reluctance to ignore the requirements of sincerity. In the past several months, we have witnessed a campaign in which truth and reason seem to have become increasingly irrelevant in political discussion. Lies are told, misinformation is spread, deception is perpetrated and no one stands up for truth-telling. In fact, we have seen campaign advisors, when confronted with pure raw falsehood, insist not just that what occurred was a misstatement or was misunderstood, but that lying in politics is to be expected. The claim has been made that deception is just part of the game, that positions can be taken and statements made that are understood to be false or to state incorrectly a candidate's real view of things. Further, or so we are told, these falsehoods, these evidences of severe insincerity are to be accepted as the ways things must be -- in other words, lying is not to be criticized but should be taken as just part of the way the political world works. Those in charge of these campaigns seem to think that spin is everything, that truth and falsehood are strategies, that deception is completely permissible when running for office, that the perceived goodness of the end (electoral victory) justifies whatever means are thought to be necessary, that reluctance to lie is a foolish waste of energy. It may have been Mr. Romney's senior campaign aide who made the infamous "Etch-a-Sketch" comment, but the thought underlying the comment seems to pervade much of the political environment: candidates should say whatever is necessary to gain the nomination and, then when the general election rolls around, they hit "reset" and become someone else.

What a sad commentary on the state of American citizenship. The assumption seems to be that citizens are infinitely manipulable, that they are served as well by lies as by truth, that deceiving them in order to gain power is unobjectionable. We have seen the emergence of candidates with preciously few qualifications to be president of the United States but a slew of strong views, many of them utterly mistaken. Some of these candidates seem uninterested in "the fact of the matter"; many, indeed, belittle science and reason as tools of the elite used to dominate the rest of us. And those candidates have gotten traction with the voting public. Many were startled earlier this month when it was revealed that a majority of voters in Alabama and Mississippi believe that President Obama is a Muslim. But when the intentional or reckless falsehood that sells talk shows on radio and television has battered the citizenry, when the voters have been regaled with lie upon lie, exaggeration upon exaggeration, what can we expect?

Citizens who are generally unprepared to resist the lure of extreme rhetoric that appeals to baser instincts cannot be expected to distinguish truth from falsehood when no one stands up for truth-telling. When sincerity is cast aside as the prejudice of either the elite or the foolish, we cannot expect citizens whose attention is preoccupied with the more mundane affairs of daily life to draw tough distinctions between truth and falsehood; nor can we expect them to reward those whose sincerity drives them to tell the truth, no matter how uncomfortable to the hearer, when other speakers abound who pander to bias, prejudice, and self-interest. As a result, politicians (or those who run for office claiming not to be politicians) are not rewarded for calm, for reason, for truth-telling. Instead, they are rewarded for outrage, for disregard of even-tempered statement, for a headlong rush to the edges (in this case to the extreme right, though this feature of the situation is only circumstantial). Rather than lift up the citizenry, today's candidates seek to dive to the depths inhabited by the least thoughtful members of the public, sincerity be damned.

It is not that we haven't been here, or near here, before. Politics exists in a world where the tendency is always to race to the bottom rather than raise anyone up. That is its nature, and those who succeed in that world can never be expected to be moral exemplars. But it is worth reflecting that something may be different now, that cultural and social forces may have worked up a situation in which no moral holds are barred short of outright and open corruption. At the root of that situation may well be the disappearance of a disposition toward accuracy, Williams' other virtue of truth.

There seems to be no cash value to accuracy, at least among candidates. Even those candidates who cannot be criticized for being insincere seem to operate on a belief that truth is not particularly relevant to political campaigning -- or they operate with a conception of truth that is unaffected by careful thought or the gradual accumulation of facts through research. Certainly many of them reject inconvenient facts, speaking as if the facts are only theories foisted upon the public by power-hungry elites. Some simply jettison the findings of science when those findings contradict what they want to believe. Though they would surely reject this characterization, the reigning mood is relativist: what counts as truth is determined by pre-existing beliefs, by faith, by emotion, and can therefore differ from one person to the next. The candidates do not so much question the existence of truth as they tie truth to prejudice, treating science and other forms of careful research as just another kind of bias one might have.

Since we have not equipped the vast majority of the population with the dispositions, skills, and knowledge necessary to be reflective citizens, these fact-eluding candidates find a ready audience. Our political culture -- with its endless campaigns, its screaming matches on radio and television, its overall fostering of prejudice and emotion over reason -- provides a fertile ground for the purveying of falsehood and deception via emotional appeal. We have crafted a citizenry that is impatient with careful analysis and drawn toward the kind of "thought" best captured in sound bites. Truth tends to be complex, not susceptible to quick, pithy statement (except, of course, those simple, plain truths that we generally take for granted, such as "I am writing a blog post" or "the weather is cold today and it's raining"). Truth is not easily captured in the kind of emotion-laden language that appeals to the pre-existing prejudices of one's hearers, the kind of language that inspires cheers rather than thought and discomfort. Our educational system, our politics, our media -- indeed much of our culture as a whole -- discourage thought and the patient search for the facts of the matter in an effort to arrive at the truth. Instead, they encourage quick response rooted in unexamined biases. Such a citizenry is uniquely prone to the gradual disappearance of a disposition to accuracy in public life.

One of the central problems our politics lies in a dilemma facing newly elected government officials. Elections are won using a strategy that minimizes the importance of accurate understanding of national problems or of economic, social, and environmental conditions related to national policy. But once they have won, they must govern. And governing, at least for those who are serious about wanting to ensure the welfare of our constitutional democracy and the people who have ordained and established it, requires a commitment to accuracy. The disposition seemingly necessary to getting elected contradicts the disposition necessary to govern well. The newly elected officeholder, disposed to opt for emotion and bias when it seems necessary to achieving success, confronts the challenge of changing to a disposition quite the opposite -- or to continue on the path of saying what is thought to be necessary to achieve one's short-term ends regardless of its truth. But dispositions are not easily changed  -- they are habits of mind and cannot be shaken off as one would shake off the loss of one's favorite team in a tournament. Dispositions cling, and if one's disposition is to place image above accuracy, that tendency is likely to cling to everything one does in public office.

When lying becomes widespread, when politicians display less and less reluctance to deceive when they can persuade themselves that deception is necessary to gain or hold office (which, in turn, they always see as essential to the welfare of their country), when they tolerate the spread of misinformation and pander to and exploit ignorance of facts, something has gone seriously wrong with our politics. Then "citizens have reason to fear their politicians' judgment," as Williams put it. Additionally, they have reason to fear for the well-being of their country -- at least this is true of those citizens, fewer and fewer perhaps, who recognize what is going on.

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