I found pretty fascinating a show from the NPR program “On the Media“: “Lies, Lies, Lies“. I’m recommending it if you have about 50 minutes to ponder the truth about lies, and lying about the truth.
Inspired by this year’s presidential presidential campaign, it covers recent American history related to lies and truth, politicians and the press. Though we hate when politicians lie to us (or maybe, more truthfully we just hate when those we oppose lie, we are more tolerant when the candidates we favor lie), the fact is politicians often say things they think that people want to hear. As Psychologist Maria Hartwig comments: “People want the truth if it fits with what they want to hear.” So politicians are tempted by us and what we want to hear. We like the truth if we agree with it, otherwise we are willing to dispense with it; so too, politicians. Additionally, as the program points out, truth can become fashionable, or go out of fashion – I found that segment of the show to be fascinating – how the political process treats truthfulness and truthiness. Politicians are willing to use truth when it is convenient and ignore it when it isn’t, and to twist it when that serves their purpose. Politicians also know they can be punished for telling the truth as people don’t always appreciate the candor when they want to hear what agrees with their own preconceived ideas.
Is truth self-evident? Or, does the self not rely on the evidence when it comes to the truth?
One referenced quote in the program, I had to look up because it seemed such a classic political twisting of phrases. The master communicator President Ronald Reagan speaking from the Oval Office:
“Let’s start with the part that is the most controversial. A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not. As the Tower board reported, what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages. This runs counter to my own beliefs, to administration policy, and to the original strategy we had in mind. There are reasons why it happened, but no excuses. It was a mistake.” (March 4, 1987)
His heart and best intentions told him it wasn’t true even though the facts and evidence told him it was true. A classic case of “never let the facts get in the way of what you want to believe.” or “Don’t believe everything you think.” He so interestingly phrased it: the facts and evidence aren’t giving him the truth, they are telling him what isn’t true. Not a case that he couldn’t handle the truth, he handled it very well. Douglas Adams described it well: “I don’t believe it. Prove it to me and I still won’t believe it.”
Reagan masterfully admits, “It was a mistake” which avoids any admission of intentional wrong behavior and also allows him to avoid having to admit he lied.
President Reagan was not the first president to handle truth, facts and evidence, as if it were modeling clay needing to be shaped by the artist. This year’s presidential campaign shows he won’t be the last either.
“It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” (Mark Twain)