When Lying Matters09-17-2020
The “scandal” around President Trump telling Bob Woodward that he lied to the American people about the danger posed by the Corona Virus has come and gone, having little to no impact on the the President’s approval rating. One reason is that such lies are precisely the kinds of lies that are at the root of politics: they are purposeful lies. As Trump explained to Woodward, he lied to prevent a panic. While many believe that the President should have been truthful or more panicked, the American public accepts that kind of lying from politicians. Hannah Arendt knew that lying was at the heart of political action. And, as Austin Sarat writes, so do Americans.
But Sarat also argues that the kinds of lies the President tells are different, that they “appear to have the sole purpose of benefiting himself.” While overstated in this case, it is true that the President repeatedly lies in ways that are far divorced from efforts to advance the public good. His lies about Vice President Biden around the Ukraine scandal that led to his impeachment, for example, were clearly an abuse of power. This week, the President retweeted accusations associated with the Qanon conspiracy that Vice President Biden was involved in a pedophilia. And the President again this week questioned whether masks work in stopping the spread of the Corona Virus. Unlike the lies he told Woodward, these lies do not even seem to serve a public service; they are simply attempts to sow confusion and cynicism that can be manipulated for personal and political gain. It is these kinds of lies that, as Sarat writes, are dangerous for democracy.
Research suggests that while people may praise truth-telling in the abstract, their behavior tells a different story. A 1996 study of college students found they told around two lies a day. While members of the community in which their school was located told fewer falsehoods, they nonetheless confessed to telling a lie in one of every five interactions with someone else. And a national study in 2010 concluded Americans tell an average 1.7 lies daily.
Americans lie and expect to be lied to by others. Living with deception and falsehood is just a fact of life. Some lies that we live with seem trivial, hardly worthy of note. But some are not so easily dismissed. They make a difference in business, commerce and personal relationships.
In our daily lives we reject the philosopher Immanuel Kant's injunction that lying is always morally wrong, and we appear to disregard the Biblical commandment to tell the truth. By and large, we do not regard honesty or truth telling as virtues in themselves.
Americans take a pragmatic view of lying and use it for what they regard as good causes.
What is true in private life is also true when it comes to what we expect from politicians. While surveys suggest most Americans view it as essential for people in public life to be honest and ethical, they do not believe politicians live up to that standard.
So, politics and dishonesty go together in the public mind. As a result, while Americans recognize that Trump is dishonest, they don't think he's much worse than other politicians.
Democracy cannot survive and prosper if our political leaders deny that there are things that are true and things that are false — or assert that the difference between truth and falsity does not matter at all. It is endangered if leaders lie to citizens without guilt or shame.