More than three hundred years ago philosopher John Locke, in his “Letter Concerning Toleration,” urged protection for almost all religious believers, except Catholics who were deemed loyal to a foreign prince. Locke also rejected protections for atheists on the grounds that their word could not be trusted; their oaths sworn to no higher being were meaningless.
It is fashionable today to dismiss such concerns as rooted in superstition and prejudice. We are told we should just trust one another’s words on faith, although which faith is unclear. If not a mutual recognition that we live in an ordered universe in which lying brings damage to oneself, either directly from God or through permanent damage to one’s soul, what is left for the enforcement of oaths and contracts? How do we trust one another in the basic dealings of life, let alone the crucial determinations made by courts and self-governing peoples?
Dishonesty is nothing new. Politicians always treat a lie as part of their professional equipment and can offer numerous excuses that they pass off as justification. It is my first duty to get elected so I can do good things; the public wants to be lied to; it’s either lie or lose; or virtue may be its own reward but it doesn’t do much for my election chances. But, of course, they never truly lie, just ask them – they misspeak, the media is biased, their words were misinterpreted, distorted, twisted, exaggerated, overstated, understated or misstated and my personal favorite, they were quoted out of context.
Psychologists, of course, would have us believe that it isn’t so much that politicians lie as the mental tricks we use when listening. They argue that we hear only what we want to subconsciously through selective perception, motivated reasoning, or cognitive dissonance. Maybe they’re right. Maybe we are indifferent about the truth because we prefer to escape from reality.
Is it worth asking a question of those who make lies part of their business model? Should we even expect the truth from those who are sworn in to testify in court, or who bear witnesses to official documents under penalty of perjury? After all, almost no one is held accountable for lying. Perjury, bearing false witness, for centuries a capital offense, is basically ignored as SOP, standard operating procedure.
I found an older article, Why Politicians Have To Lie, that is not only truthful but entertaining. According to the writer, a used car salesman lies because there is a good chance that the buyer will not see through the lies. Politicians, on the other hand, lie and continue to lie, even though the audience knows he’s lying. Perhaps they lie not just because they are pathological liars but because we expect too much of them. We expect them to take political positions intended to appeal to a particular constituency but, we also expect them to take moral positions.
Unfortunately, morality and politics are always in conflict, because politicians must appeal to various individual interests in their targeted audience. Politics is never about getting everyone on your side – it’s about getting a majority of people on your side. The competitive nature of politics encourages politicians to appeal to the smallest majority that they need in order to gain power. In a democracy this usually means anything over 50%. Appealing to the smallest majority possible maximizes the benefits that politicians can promise to that majority. In other words, if he tries to woe too large a constituency, the size of the minority that he can screw over is too small, limiting what he is able to steal from them, minimizing the benefits that he can pass on to his targeted constituency.
To get the votes, he must take a position that clearly benefits the 50 plus percent, and to be morally upright he must take a position that is agreeable to the 90%, taking both of these positions simultaneously. Luckily, although the 50 plus percentage expects him to take a moral position, they don’t really mind if he does this dishonestly. Indeed, his supporters not only expect but tolerate political doublespeak. They expect him to lie about the morality of his political platform, while remaining sensitive to whether or not his platform benefits them. They expect him to use language that is deceptive and confusing in order to express positions which have the appearance of morality yet have the reality of exploitation and transfer of wealth and power.
Sounds like as good an explanation as any.
When Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, “Death Has Touched Us All – live not by lies” he was urging the downfall of an evil communist system that had in effect killed hundreds of millions. [You can read a reprint of his essay published by the Washington Post in 2008 at this link.] Today the danger is not so much organized lies as a general loss of honor, a kind of lethargy in the face of temptations to, among other things, lie. What our culture needs is an antidote for the sense of entitlement infecting our highest echelons of power, an attitude that has spread throughout our culture. An attitude, that if left unchecked, will be our downfall.
“Political language…is designed to make liars sound truthful and murders respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” George Orwell