“THERE IS TRUTH AND THERE ARE LIES – lies told for power and for profit. Each of us has a duty and a responsibility as citizens, as Americans and especially as leaders… to defend the truth and defeat the lies.”
President Joe Biden, delivering his inaugural speech in Washington last week, was addressing a nation divided and traumatised by Donald Trump’s four years in office. His words are equally a challenge to us in the United Kingdom.
The toxic concepts of ‘post-truth’, ‘alternative facts’ and perhaps most of all, ‘fake news’ – a phrase coined to dismiss anything Donald Trump found inconvenient – have become part of the political atmosphere we breathe. Lies and deceit are normalised, rendering us cynical, divided and angry. Onslaughts of misinformation are exhausting our critical faculties and the consequent sense of helplessness generates an odd but deadly combination of alienated rage and resentful apathy.
It does not have to be this way. To give up on truth is to ensure that the least scrupulous will always have the greatest power over us. Trust has to be restored if our democracy is to resist a slide into populism and authoritarianism. And a good starting point is to examine some of the causes of lying, acknowledging that most of us have frailties in some of these areas.
Perhaps the most common form of lying and the one we may learn earliest, is the self-protective falsehood. If a child knows that verbal or physical violence will be the response to its wrong-doing, it is likely to do whatever is necessary to avoid that retribution. A habit of life rooted in fear is being laid down. Both individuals and institutions with the power to inflict punishment have a moral responsibility to discern the difference between revenge and rehabilitation and to react accordingly. When an individual knows that a selfish choice or a failure of judgement will not result in some form of public thrashing, they are are far more likely to be truthful and accept the consequences of their actions, administered with justice and proportion.
Then there is the “truth that’s told with bad intent”. This is a favourite playground for politicians. A partial truth, or one carefully placed in a misleading context which cannot be exposed without a good deal of digging and disentanglement, will turn into hard – or at least popular – fact by the time the unravelling has been done. This is the area in which much misinformation takes place and is possibly more damaging than the outright lie which may be more easily seen through. Who has not obfuscated from time to time? Perhaps we could all think twice about this failing in our own lives.
Although lying in defence or pursuit of status is common far beyond Westminster, MPs who are ambitious for office or eager to hold on to it. seem to be conspicuously ready to put out ‘water flows uphill’ nonsense if they think it will gain them brownie points with the whips, the leadership and the media. The convolutions into which this leads too many of them, both in interviews and often, I regret to say, in responses to their constituents’ letters, sometimes seems impenetrable. But it has to be penetrated. We need to take a long look in the personal laboratory here too. President Biden’s reminder of our responsibility as citizens is of the greatest importance. If we become hardened to even small expedient untruths in personal, domestic and work environments, this localised weather will contribute to the climate which is menacing our democracy.
At the level of our electoral and political institutions there is also much to be addressed. The First Past the Post voting system distorts candidate selection as much as it does the relationship between votes and seats. In a ‘safe seat’, the party with no chance of winning finds it hard to attract high calibre candidates while the party with an unassailable majority – perhaps oddly – has a similar problem. The man or woman who turns up appropriately dressed and groomed and who knows how to play to the opinions and prejudices of the selection committee has a good chance of being chosen. Their attitude towards the truth is perhaps less likely to be rigorously examined if they push all the other buttons which a partisan and very small set of people think will appeal to the wider electorate.
We are not powerless here. We can persist in writing to our MPs and to the local media when we find them falling short. If we don’t, we are shoring up the well-paid job-for-as-long-as-I-want-it mindset. We can campaign and press for a more just voting system. We can do this for open selection meetings too: some constituencies are beginning to see the value of going beyond closed door partisanship. We can attend hustings during election campaigns and ask the questions which make candidates uncomfortable. I find that “what would you do in a situation where being truthful might conflict with your ambitions and personal or party interests?” useful here. The body language can be very revealing. And even if the response is not entirely honest, a marker for valuing integrity has been laid down.
In short, we can peck away at the complacency which permits some politicians to believe that however much we grumble up our sleeves or occasionally insult them on social media, they are actually bomb-proof. But we can only do this if we are willing to put in the hard yards of examining our own failings and of understanding how these arise, how they may be altered, and, on the wider stage, to be voices for changing systems which are not constructed for the people they claim to serve.
Lastly – but by no means least – let us not give way to the cynical and sullen apathy which at times may beckon so seductively. Next time someone tells you that “politicians are all the same”, remember that they are not all mendacious, evasive and self-serving apparatchiks. Show them this.
© Jill Segger is Associate Director of Ekklesia, with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. She is the author of Words out of Silence, published by Ekklesia in May 2019. Jill is an active Quaker. Her columns are available here and her pre-2021 articles can be found here. You can follow jill on Twitter here.