Friday, August 31, 2012

Destroying the Truth to Save It

Some time ago I came across a comic book called, if I remember correctly, "The Big Lie." It was basically a Truther screed about how the attacks on the World Trade Center towers on September 11th, 2001 couldn't have happened as the official story says it did. The basic conceit of the story is that a CERN researcher whose husband died in the attacks figures out how to use the Large Hadron Collider to send herself back in time. She then runs to the World Trade Center, finds her husband in his office, and tries to warn him and his co-workers of the fate about to befall them. After about two pages of this, I found myself wondering why (other than the plot demanded that she go into detail about what happened so the other characters could "debunk" it) she didn't just pull the fire alarm or call in a bomb threat on either Twin Towers or the planes involved in the attack. After all, she was trying to save thousands of lives, and could even have stopped a war or two.

Which raises an interesting question. What is worth lying about? Since it's campaign season, politicians are crisscrossing the country (or at least the battleground states) making speeches and calling out their opponents. And there are a number of outlets that are fact-checking their words. And so, if you're up for a little digging, you can find any number of instances of where candidates do everything from tell the truth, but not the whole truth to outright lie like a rug. And, unsurprisingly, an entire cottage industry seems to have built up around being outraged that politicians would tell us anything but the unvarnished truth. Leaving aside my pet peeve of the general public's complicity in a lack of veracity in the political class, I have a question - if a politician honestly thought that they could save the nation, or the world, by being elected into office, would that be worth lying for?

While I'm not going to say that any of us would lie in the name of doing good, I will cop to that myself. If I thought that convincing someone of something that I knew to be false when I said it would save their life, I'd likely say "truth be hanged" and go for it. And in situations where someone else did the same thing, I'd likely be inclined to still think well of that person. (I'm too much of a Utilitarian to be more concerned with keeping my own hands clean than I am with the greater good.) The conventional wisdom is that when politicians lie, it points to a deeper (much deeper) character flaw. We see them as being dishonest and insincere in everything they do, and their reasons for wanting to be in office become suspect. But is that really an accurate way to look at things? Since the Republican National Convention has just wrapped up, let's look at Romney and Ryan. They've both said things in speeches that fact checkers have called out as clear falsehoods. But if the two of them really feel that the nation is in dire straits, and the best hope of fixing it is from the White House, why wouldn't we expect them to do whatever it took to get there? After all, Jimmy Carter, when he was President, told it like it was. See where it got him.

Of course, this isn't to say that every time a politician tells a lie to get into office, they they have noble motives. But it does, perhaps, say that even upstanding politicians are likely to be less than honest when it's on the line. Many people already subscribe to this idea on a partisan level - they're willing to give their own guy a pass when he's caught saying something untrue. Sometimes, they're even forthright enough to come out and say that they'd rather have their guy be in office, as opposed to squeaky clean. Maybe, if we're going to give the benefit of the doubt, we shouldn't limit it to only those people whose party affiliation matches our own. If we're going to recognize that there are more important things, at times, than telling the truth for its own sake, then we should be willing to entertain the idea that getting into a position where one can do some good might be one of those times. This, obviously, is a pale second place to what we should be doing, namely learning to collectively handle the truth, even when it's uncomfortable, and thus lessening the need for politicians to resort to distorting the truth as a campaign tactic. But perhaps being less ready to vilify people with whom we disagree will work as a first step.

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