The October issue of Time Magazine admirably handled the whole issue of political lies and distortion. In one key piece of reporting and research they asked each of the Obama and Romney campaigns for a list of the lies/distortions being told on them by the other side. They then took these lists and ran then through the mill of FactCheck.org. The results were very interesting.
Of course, campaigns attempt to discredit the other side in order to sway the public toward their own cause. This discrediting often includes bearing false witness (sorry, couldn’t resist pulling out one of the ten Biblical biggies!). It’s done on both sides. And utilitarianism (end justifies the means) has become the norm of doing political business.
Sometimes the discrediting comes in the form of an out and out lie. But more often the slight is the result of very selective editing – from a speech, an action, a report. Out of context, the particular statement of the opponent appears very damning. In context, however, it tells an entirely different story. Exaggeration is another ploy. And the misuse of statistics out of context is rampant: 500,000 of this or a $billion of that. Over five years an increase or decrease of this or that (without relevant information that sheds light on what it means).
The general consensus of the fact checkers is that both campaigns are running neck and neck with falsification and lying about the other, with Romney’s team taking a slight edge on brazenness.
In pondering all this it became fairly clear to me how very subjective this all is. Two sets of voters seek out – through the confirmation bias which we all have – the story that supports their own predilections. I will admit evidence that supports my candidate/party and dismiss all the rest. We find what we want to find, hear what we want to hear.
But my second thought brought a series of questions: What to do about that? Do we just swim in lies and multiple stories indefinitely? Is there a counterbalance? Is objectivity possible, or moving toward more objectivity? And will some third option develop in the future that is more pragmatic, more problem-solving oriented? What kind of public pressure and speech can affect this direction in an effective way? Is truth and justice merely a fiction, an idea held by those who have the power to determine what that is? Is the present enterprise so broken that we don’t redeem it, but rather side-step it and create something else? And what would that be?
And then there are always the ultimate questions of faith and transcendence. If we know that all this questing after power is merely mortals seeking their own will at the expense of others, that the grass withers and fades, is here today and gone tomorrow, what sacred thread can be woven into such a sin-laden endeavor? Is there hope for that, aside from withdrawal into a religious cocoon?
I’m going to start by insisting for myself that I will not slander the other, bear false witness against the other. If you’ve ever had the experience of being on the receiving end of the deception of others you know how painful and destructive it can be. Let it start with me.
And I may begin to ask my elected public officials to do the same. If you’re going to run for office, be in office, don’t do it on the wings of lies and deception. As far as you are able, rise above all that. Because if you don’t, we’ll make sure you don’t have the opportunity to do it again in the future.