catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 19 :: 2010.10.22 — 2010.11.04


The lie of perfection

In the last month, Britain has witnessed two key political events. The first was the leadership election for the Labour party, only recently ousted after 12 years in power, which captured the media’s imagination as “younger brother” Ed Miliband somewhat controversially beat his older brother David to win the vote.  Shortly following and culminating yesterday in the chancellor’s Common’s speech was the gradual revealing of the Conservative party’s major spending review, which was headlined repeatedly as the biggest cuts since WWII (turns out, it’s just since the 1970s). What has struck me over and over as I’ve followed the media coverage is how trapped politicians are whenever they respond to questions or defend their policies. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that I actually felt badly for politicians.

It goes without saying that the news media in the U.K. is much different from that in the U.S. Reporters here generally are far more aggressive and can get away with much more confrontational interview techniques. I would argue that as a whole, they perhaps ask better questions, but I’m coming to really doubt whether they get better answers.  I’d also suggest that treating every single piece of public policy with contempt doesn’t necessarily count as objectivity.

Certainly though, whether in the U.K. or the U.S., we have grown to accept a disturbing amount of untruth in political dialogue. To some extent we even tacitly accept that “full disclosure” isn’t a realistic expectation for politics, and perhaps there is some wisdom there. Often there are situations where it is simply courteous not to speculate on colleagues’ intentions or preemptively announce policy details that are soon to be revealed by a senior figure. Similarly, there are times and places to air opinions, and we shouldn’t expect that every time politicians are quizzed on something, they will spill their guts. However, I do think we should demand a lot more than we currently get.

One particular kind of lie we are used to hearing occurs when politicians are confronted with former statements or promises they made that seem to conflict with what they’re now saying. It has become cardinal sin in politics to admit having changed your mind, so the occasions when prominent figures admit to a change of heart are far and few between. There is perhaps a perception that if you are an intelligent individual, you should get it right your first “think,” or that if you change your opinion on a matter you will reveal yourself as an uncommitted “flip-flopper” (that frightful term, thankfully, hasn’t made it to the U.K.). As it happens, there are countless good reasons for even the most intelligent politicians to change their minds. Context and circumstances change, new information often becomes available, priorities sometimes need to be re-juggled, and further time to reflect often yields fresh conclusions.

Another reason that politicians avoid admitting to changing their minds is the implication that they were wrong before. Sometimes, as public opinion tides shift, or as elections draw near, politicians in a party might collectively admit to having been wrong, but this allows that no individual is wrong but only the nebulous party. It is extremely rare to see an individual politician express regret over voting or believing a certain way, the presumption being that we couldn’t possibly trust a politician who has made a mistake. This is why (as we saw with Obama’s firing of Shirley Sherrod last July) officials are so frequently booted right out of their jobs at first whisper of a transgression. Politicians in the both the U.K. and U.S. often resign as soon as allegations of untoward activity hit the media. In many cases they turn out to be completely blameless, but in the meantime it is deemed that their positions are “untenable,” and there goes a career.

In these two examples, we find an assumed demand for absolute perfection wrapped up with an inevitability of untruth. Whether or not it is the case, politicians (at least the higher-ups) believe that voters cannot forgive, and will not stand for the slightest wobbles. If this is the case, it follows that either lies or immediate ejection will follow politicians changing their minds or slipping up. I wouldn’t for a second contend that we shouldn’t have high standards for politicians’ conduct in all sorts of areas, but I do think that part of fostering space for truth is accepting reality — which includes imperfect people.

I would even (quite tentatively) suggest that a recent scandal, in which U.S. military forces may have inadvertently killed a kidnapped British aid worker during her attempted rescue, but initially presented a story that she had died at the hands of her captors, is in part a product of unreasonable expectations of perfection leading to lies about mistakes. An inquest into this incident has yet to begin, and so it’s unclear as yet what actually happened, but if it turns out that the hostage was killed by American forces, I would say that their lies are in part a product of our unwillingness to accept failures. Of course, military arrogance might have played its own part, and perhaps the U.S. forces shouldn’t have gone in at all (as has been suggested) or were careless in their rescue, and if any of these are the case we should ask serious questions. However, they were undoubtedly very brave, and it is quite possible that they did an excellent job. We simply can’t expect happy endings every day. Of course it’s not right to reduce individuals’ survivals to “successes” and “mistakes,” but we must learn to live with and accept a certain reality of human error; we live in a broken world where doing the right thing sometimes isn’t enough.

Different from the above reasons for rampant political untruth, a last systematic cause I’ll mention is the mindless commitment of politicians to toeing their party line. I’m not sure whether this is a bigger problem in the U.K. or the U.S., but I am convinced it is extremely damaging in both cases. Public demand for perfection is one shade of the situation, but political strategy is more significant. When there isn’t complete unity expressed by a party, it can seem that the leadership is weak, that the party doesn’t have a clear plan, and it is an open door to criticism (often unfair) by other parties. Over and over during the last weeks, I have seen British politicians queried on their personal views on this or that policy, and they are perpetually tongue-tied or otherwise repeat the quickly-stale party lines like robots. They are certainly acting loyally and strategically, but there is so little truth in their words — because they aren’t speaking for themselves. Perhaps many or most of them do in fact believe what they’re saying, but you wouldn’t know it given the artificially identical responses you hear. We have come, I think, to accept this form of deception as part and parcel of politics, but I don’t think we have to. I think the value of being able to believe individual politicians is great enough that we should make real effort to encourage it.

As I draw to a close, I’m aware that I haven’t offered any practical suggestions to encourage truth-speaking in politics. Instead, I hope I’ve encouraged a shift in attitude toward cultivating a spirit of forgiveness for politicians and a desire for truth over strategy. Of course, communicating this to politicians, or their superiors, is what will cause change, and that is an uphill project indeed. However, things like writing notes of praise when moments of unlikely truth shine through, or writing notes of concern when there isn’t a sniff of truth to be seen, are effective forms of political activism. Writing to a politician or party that you support and affirm will probably have the most impact, since you can praise their work, but express regret that you can’t trust what they say. In essence, we must communicate to politicians that we don’t expect 100% perfection but we do expect 100% truth. In this way we give politicians permission to tell the truth even when they might otherwise fear the public response. Making a case for a move away from the reigning assumption of spin towards a radical assumption of truth is very important, and a crucial one to democracy and just government.

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