Politicians and lies: How the media forgot the difference between opinion and fact
Liar liar pants on fire
The title of this article by Holman Jenkins intrigued me: “Politicians Never Lied Before Trump,” and so I clicked on it. I was almost certain that the title was sarcastic—of course, politicians lie often, and have done so since time immemorial—and sure enough, the title was indeed meant as sarcasm.
It seems completely obvious to me that one of the most common activities of politicians is to lie. To some extent, politics almost demands it, depending on how one defines “lie.” Is a bragging exaggeration a lie? Is an optimistic promise a lie? How exaggerated does it have to be before it becomes a lie rather than mere hyperbole?
Opinions are not lies, nor is any other statement as long as the speaker really believes that what he or she says is true (which is not always the case in politics or in life). Opinions can be incorrect, they can be based on faulty reasoning or faulty information, but as long as they are sincere you can’t call them lies. And yet so-called “fact checkers” do so on a daily basis.
Facts are facts, but sometimes contradictory information (Kellyanne Conway’s much-maligned “alternative facts”) is out there and it can be very difficult to ascertain what’s correct and what’s incorrect. So politicians constantly argue by citing one fact or another, or one statistic or another, that bolsters their own point of view. That’s only a lie if the facts are obviously wrong or made up.
Some politicians lie and/or exaggerate to brag—that’s one of Trump’s favorite activities. But some lie to fool the American people about policy, its motives or its effects—that’s Obama’s favorite, and he did it very smoothly. I consider the latter type of lie to be far more pernicious for a politician to tell than the former type, considering it goes to the heart of the matter: why a person was elected and what the person intends to do while in office.
In addition, some politicians lie about themselves—not just to brag, but about something much deeper: their political aims and philosophy. Obama again, or anyone else who pretends to be more centrist than he or she is. That’s not an uncommon approach for politicians while campaigning, in order to appeal to the broadest group of people.
I often hear that Trump lies far more than any other president. That’s not my perception, unless you count as lies a lot of things that aren’t (opinions, for example), and/or a lot of things that are minor and inconsequential. The people who keep telling us that Trump lies so much are astounded and offended at the response that Obama lied as well, and about much more important things.
One can go to charts listing the lies of either or both to prove a point, but of course, the charts almost always (maybe even always) represent partisan efforts to make one or the other look worse (for example, see this critique of one of the Times’ anti-Trump efforts). And we shouldn’t be interested in sheer numbers—it’s the subject matter and import of the lie that matters, not the quantity.
But it’s not a waste of time to look at those partisan charts for Obama and Trump to compare what each side considers the person’s worst offenses. Here’s a fairly comprehensive chart of Obama’s lies, and if you study it you can see that many of them are very serious indeed. However, the sheer number of Obama’s supposed lies listed there, although large (1063), is considerably smaller than the 7,645 “false or misleading” statements supposedly made by Trump, according to the WaPo (although so far I can’t find an actual list of them). But the few examples of Trump’s lies that the WaPo does offer at that link are of the bragging/hyperbole type. And note the WaPo’s addition of “misleading,” an adjective which could probably be applied to many political statements on either side and allows the list to grow extremely long.
Take a look at NBC’s year-end list of Trump’s supposedly biggest falsehoods of 2018, and you’ll see something similar: mostly a bunch of brags as well as opinions. An example of the latter is “Democrats are ‘radical socialists’ who want to turn America into Venezuela.” Not only is that an opinion of Trump’s, but it’s a slight misquote of what Trump actually said, which was more limited (and which the article actually does go on to offer later on without pointing out the difference) [emphasis mine]: “The new Democrats are radical socialists who want to model America’s economy after Venezuela.” Not only is that an opinion, but it becomes more apparent every day that for many of those “new” Democrats, it’s probably not too far from the mark.
Compare and contrast to that list of Obama’s lies. The number on the list may be smaller, but they are far worse than Trump’s—far more important and basic, and far more troubling.
[Neo is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at the new neo.]
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1. Traditional Definition of Lying
There is no universally accepted definition of lying to others. The dictionary definition of lying is “to make a false statement with the intention to deceive” (OED 1989) but there are numerous problems with this definition. It is both too narrow, since it requires falsity, and too broad, since it allows for lying about something other than what is being stated, and lying to someone who is believed to be listening in but who is not being addressed.
The most widely accepted definition of lying is the following: “A lie is a statement made by one who does not believe it with the intention that someone else shall be led to believe it” (Isenberg 1973, 248) (cf. “[lying is] making a statement believed to be false, with the intention of getting another to accept it as true” (Primoratz 1984, 54n2)). This definition does not specify the addressee, however. It may be restated as follows:
(L1) To lie =df to make a believed-false statement to another person with the intention that the other person believe that statement to be true.
L1 is the traditional definition of lying. According to L1, there are at least four necessary conditions for lying. First, lying requires that a person make a statement (statement condition). Second, lying requires that the person believe the statement to be false; that is, lying requires that the statement be untruthful (untruthfulness condition). Third, lying requires that the untruthful statement be made to another person (addressee condition). Fourth, lying requires that the person intend that that other person believe the untruthful statement to be true (intention to deceive the addressee condition).
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