What is so terrible about integrity!
I don’t know if my title to today’s post is part of a saying that is well-known in the USA. But back in dear old England the expression is widely used; the full expression being, “Lies, Damn Lies, and Politicians“.
So what’s got my ‘knickers in a twist’ about the various hues of ‘truth’ that we find amongst our politicians?
Before answering that question, perhaps I should answer a more fundamental question that might be arising in the minds of those followers who are relatively new to this place. (And each and every one of you has to understand the very great privilege you offer me by being a follower.) That question being what have integrity and politicians got to do with a blog about dogs?
Easily answered in the words over at About this Blog:
The underlying theme of Learning from Dogs is about truth, integrity, honesty and trust in every way. We use the life of dogs as a metaphor.
The article seemed to articulate, in a measured and responsible fashion, what huge numbers of us sense subjectively: truth is rare to see in the world of power and politics.
I’m not going to republish it in full, including the tables, but will offer the first half with a link to the rest of the article. The author of the article is Dr. Ellis Jones, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA.
How many ways can politicians ‘lie’? How a class led to a ‘truth’ report card for the 2016 election.
I regularly teach a course called The Sociology of Television & Media in which my students and I critically explore newscasts, entertainment programming and (both commercial and political) advertising. The theme that I use as a touchstone throughout the class is: What happens when, as a society, we begin to mix fantasy and reality together in mass media?
We discuss how a range of troubling outcomes emerge for a public that has difficulty telling truth from fiction. Max Horkheimer, a German-Jewish sociologist, argued that this is part of what led to the rise of Nazism in Germany.
Once we lose our ability to detect lies, we become vulnerable to demagogues.
Six categories of rhetoric
About halfway through the semester, I have students deconstruct political ads, and we discuss practical resources for navigating the web of truths, half-truths and outright lies that proliferate unhindered during each election cycle.
One resource that I offer is Politifact.org’s Truth-o-Meter. Students fact-check politicians’ statements to determine how much, if any, truth is contained therein (they actually won a Pulitzer Prize for their work fact-checking the 2008 election).
The first, and perhaps most important, takeaway from their work is that modern political statements cannot accurately be rated as simply “true” or “false.” So sophisticated has the art of mixing truth and lies become that the scale Politifact currently uses includes six separate categories of political rhetoric: true, mostly true, half true, mostly false, false and “pants on fire” (for statements that aren’t just false but also completely ludicrous – and yet still stated as truth).
In essence, while there is still but one way to tell the truth, there are now at least five times as many acceptable ways to lie.
For example, John Boehner’s May 3 2015 statement on Meet The Press that “we spend more money on antacids than we do on politics” is rated simply “false.” Fact-checking reveals that in the US, we spent somewhere between US$3 billion and US$7 billion on elections in 2014 (depending on what money streams you include), while we spent less than $2 billion on antacids in the same year.
Boehner’s team was apparently trying to compare global sales of antacids (including all seven billion people on the planet) to US spending on elections (about 320 million of us) – a false comparison.
On April 23 2015, Hillary Clinton provided a good illustration of a statement that rates as a “half truth.” When addressing the Women in the World Summit in New York City, Clinton asserted that the US ranks “65th out of 142 nations” when it comes to equal pay for women. The statistic comes from the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Global Gender Gap Report.
However, the primary measure generated by this report ranks the US 20th in gender equity. The ranking of 65th is taken from a subcategory in the report that relies on a survey of perceptions of executives rather than hard numbers. So, while it is technically true, it may actually be overstating the severity of the gender pay gap comparison.
Whom can we trust?
The second takeaway, though it may not be much of a surprise, is that there are no politicians in this country that exclusively tell the truth. Every single one, to a greater or lesser extent, spins, bends, twists or breaks the truth.
Perhaps this is the price of power in our modern democracy, but we should find it at least a little troubling.
So where does this leave us? Well, knowing that every one of our politicians lies, the most important question, in my mind, becomes: Who is most often telling the truth and who is lying to us repeatedly in order to gain our support?
In other words, whom can and whom can’t we trust?
With this question in mind, I had my students add up the raw numbers for 25 major politicians (based on Politifact’s fact-checking over the past eight years) and write the results up on the board in rank order from most to least honest based on the data. The results were intriguing.
While the prototype point system was not particularly sophisticated (two points for each true statement, one point for each mostly true statement, zero for half-truths, etc.), the numbers revealed that many well-known politicians were abusing the truth far more than they were embracing it.
When I asked the class what they thought of the results, one student raised her hand and replied, “I’m not shocked.” Many of the others immediately nodded their heads in agreement.
I wondered if we’ve become so accustomed to the bending and breaking of the truth that we no longer expect truth from our leaders. Now we’re teaching the next generation not to expect it either.
After seeing these preliminary results, I was hooked.
Please do read the rest of this fascinating and hugely helpful report. It names names in terms of the ‘good, bad and ugly’!
However, the closing paragraphs of Dr. Jones’ article are so wonderful that I can’t resist republishing them!
As teachers, caught up in our own subject matter, we easily forget that our students are hungry to apply what they’re being taught in our classes to something meaningful in their own lives.
It is our obligation to offer each generation a sense of social responsibility, hope for the future and the practical tools that will allow them to build it for themselves.
Something like a yearly Honesty Report Card might serve us well at this point in our democracy’s evolution. At the very least, let’s use this idea as a starting point for some kind of political unity in this country.
Whether you are liberal or conservative, can’t we at least agree that our politicians should start telling us the truth?
At this point in preparing today’s post, I wanted, wanted so much, something to take me away into some dreamy corner of my mind. For just a few minutes to be distracted from the present day realities of life.
I chose to do it by listening to this track from Chris Rea.
Oh, nearly forgot to mention that dogs don’t lie!