Topic: Government & Politics

Loose Ends: Three Ethical Distortions from Election ’04

Part 1. The Meaning of “Lie”

Let the pundits, talking heads and experts conduct the political post-mortems of President’s Bush’s victory, not because they’re any better at it than the rest of us, but because, unlike the rest of us, that’s all they have to do. The Ethics Scoreboard’s interest is ultimately more important, which is to clear up some crucial ethical concepts that were thoroughly muddled in the campaign wars and media commentary, before they nest in our brains forever. There are many, but three stand out, and must be addressed. First up: the distortion of the concept of lying.

Al Franken’s best selling book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, epitomized the pervasive misuse of the terms “lie” and “liar” in 2004, though we won’t inflate Al’s already over-fed ego by giving him credit for it. At some point, both the left and the media began defining as a “lie” any statement of contention that they didn’t think was true. In a slick piece of verbal legerdemain, the critical statement, “Their contention is wrong and untrue” became the ethical condemnation, “They are lying.”

This in itself is deceptive and insidious; worse, it devalues an important ethical concept into incoherence. Lies are wrong, and liars should be condemned, but if we use those descriptions inaccurately and indiscriminately, they lose their power and clarity. Then whether someone is a “liar” becomes just another matter for debate. The word “racist” has been sent down this regrettable route. A racist is properly someone who denigrates another purely on the basis of race, but thanks to the word’s ability to intimidate, many use it to attack anyone who opposes for any reason, good or bad, a policy that is beneficial to a particular racial group. It is the same story with “sexist.”

A lie is a statement that an individual knows is false and uses to deceive another.

There are several varieties of lie, which broadly come under the categories of misrepresentation, dishonesty, fraud and deceit (President Clinton’s favorite, in which one makes a statement that is true in some way but intended to deceive another into thinking the statement means something different. “I did not have sex with that woman!,” where the speaker means a narrow definition of “sex” while knowing that his listeners will interpret the word using the more common definition is classic deceit.). All require the intent to deceive, and the use of misinformation to accomplish that goal. Those factors were not present in many of the most prominent “lies” condemned on the campaign trail.

Example: There is no evidence that President Bush knew that the infamous “weapons of mass destruction” would not be found in Iraq. The bi-partisan committee set up by Congress to study the issue concluded that Bush got bad information from the CIA about the existence of the weapons, but that he, like almost everyone else, believed it, and acted on it. Nonetheless, such supposedly responsible Democrats as Al Gore and Ted Kennedy flatly stated that the President “lied about weapons of mass destruction.” Anti-Bush sloganeers embraced the taunt “When Clinton Lied, Nobody Died.” Over time, Bush-bashing columnists and cable hosts like Paul Begala and Maureen Dowd took up the same refrain. Either they all were misusing the word “lie,” or they were lying themselves, intentionally misleading others. All they know is that the information Bush used to argue for the invasion of Iraq turned out to be wrong. They do not know that he realized that at the time, and outside of a general conviction on their part that the man is contemptible, they have no facts to show that is the case. The facts, as analyzed by more objective inquirers, indicate the opposite.

Similarly, Kerry defenders were fond of saying that the Swiftboat attack ads on Kerry were based on “lies.” The Scoreboard deplored the attacks on Kerry’s war record, but it is impossible to say with authority that those who created the ads do not believe in their content. Certainly Lawrence O’Donnell, who shouted down the leader of the “Swifties” in an interview by calling him a liar repeatedly, has no basis for that contention at all. He simply disagrees with their assertions that Kerry’s war honors were undeserved, and he may be right; that still doesn’t make “the Swifties” liars.

All right: once we all knew what lie, liar, and lying meant, but after being bombarded incessantly with incorrect uses of the terms, we all need a refresher course. So here is the Ethics Scoreboard Election ’04 Five Question Pop Quiz entitled, “Lie or Not?” To each example, answer “Lie,” “No Lie” or “No way to tell.” Ready? Start your lie detectors!

  1. Vice-President Cheney has gained monetarily from no-bid Halliburton contracts in Iraq.

    Answer: Lie.
    There has never been any reliable information that this is true. The accusation was a favorite of Bush opponents because it looked plausible to those voters who assume that because an elected official has a corporate background, he spend his time in office trying to line the pockets of his old friends.

  2. President Bush would have made the same decision to invade Iraq even if he knew that there were no weapons of mass destruction.

    Answer: Lie.
    Bush kept saying this, and he knows it isn’t true. The true statement is that he believed an invasion of Iraq was justified even if the WMDs were no longer in the country. But without the threat of actual WMDs, Bush could not have mounted sufficient public support for the war.

  3. The invasion of Iraq was really to steal Iraq’s oil.

    Answer: Not Lie.
    At least, a great many of the people who said this were not lying, because they really believed it. The statement is absurd, but it is not a lie for many of the dedicated anti-war protestors who embraced it. Was it a lie when Michael More repeated it to spice up his “mockumentary?” It’s hard to say. I personally think Moore doesn’t believe most of the outrageous accusations he makes, as I believe he subscribes to the classic Leninist approach that distorting facts to win support for an admirable objective is a legitimate tactic. (By the way, it isn’t.) But I could not say with certainty that Moore is lying, because I have no idea what is crawling around in his baseball cap covered head.

  4. John Kerry’s election as president would have put America at greater risk of a terrorist attack.

    Answer: Not Lie.
    Dick Cheney said this, and as much and as fervently as Kerry supporters believe that it is unfair, slander, and a below-the belt attack, it is no lie. Cheney almost certainly believes it, and he isn’t the only one. An opinion cannot be a lie.

    5. The Bush Administration had a secret plan to revive the draft.

    Answer: Lie.
    Kerry was getting desperate when he stooped to this one, bolstered by floods of campus e-mails from somewhere in the Democratic camp that asserted the same thing. If Kerry had said instead, “I believe that the Bush administration has a secret plan to revive the draft,” the designation would change to “No Way to Tell,” as this would be a lie only if Kerry did NOT actually believe it, just as the statement, “I believe President Bush is a disguised alien from Jupiter” could be a “Not Lie” if the speaker was convinced it was so.

Are we back on track now? I certainly hope so, because telling the truth is at the core of ethical conduct. Losing the ability to know a real lie when we hear or read one would be a real handicap, as the past campaign demonstrated vividly.

» The three parts of this series are:


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