Monday, February 20, 2006

The unequal cost of lying

There is nothing more tragic than watching a public figure fall from grace. Recently, the UK witnessed a spectacular. Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats, the third most powerful political party in the UK, resigned after denying and then later admitting he had a drinking problem. Allegedly, the problem was not that he was an alcoholic, but that, when asked about his drinking habits a few months earlier, he had denied it, thus effectively lying. This opened the door for accusations of dishonesty, which ensured his political demise.

The controversy surrounding Kennedy is a familiar one in politics. Remember the attempted impeachment of Bill Clinton? The issue was not that he had an affair with Monica Lewinsky, but that he initially denied having “sexual relations with that woman”.

Machiavelli says that governments have different rules to individuals when it comes to honesty. From a Machiavellian perspective, one wants politicians who can tell lies. Telling lies can, in some circumstances, protect the interests of the State and its citizens. This distasteful truth is offset by democracy. Democracy demands a bond of trust between citizens and the State. You must trust your political leaders enough to know they will lie or keep secrets, only if absolutely necessary and to defend life. If they lie to the electorate for other reasons, they should be held accountable.

However, lying is a tricky business, and a government’s access to power often means that it can shape how a ‘lie’ is understood. According to the online encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, a lie is a declarative statement to another person, that one believes to be false, made with the intention that the other person may believe that statement to be true. In other words, lies, by definition, involve active deception. Politicians seldom own up to any form of deception. Take, for example, what I would call the recently invented ‘honest lie’ introduced during the Iraq war scandal. When Tony Blair claimed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that they posed a “serious and current threat” and was subsequently proved to be wrong, he said it was the fault of the intelligence services. He claims he believed the information presented to him and, as such, had not lied. He sincerely, or so he says, told the nation what he thought was true. He told a sincere lie.

But is that different from the situation with Kennedy? When asked publicly if he was an alcoholic, he said no. What we know about alcoholism is that it is common for those afflicted to fail to recognise their condition. In this sense, perhaps, he equally lied in all sincerity. But is it only the sincerity of a lie that matters, and not its consequences? The sincerity of a lie seldom matters to the victims of it. This is undoubtedly the case for the colleagues who had to cover for Kennedy when he was allegedly too drunk to perform his public duties or to Iraqi civilians and allied soldiers killed as a result of alleged misinformation.

Clearly, individuals are treated differently to governments. If an individual acts against another in ‘preemptive self-defence’, having been misinformed about the level of threat, she or he must face the law and pay the price. If a politician, on the other hand, causes the death of thousands based on misinformation about the level of threat, it is apparently entirely excusable. Unlike active deception, incompetent deception is seemingly completely forgivable when it comes to politicians.

If one man’s inability to be honest about his fondness for a tipple is enough to topple him and cost him his political career, then another man’s failure to ensure that information used to end the lives of thousands is accurate, no matter how sincerely he believed it was, should be equally damning.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, January 2006. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 20 January 2006.