After I wrote on Wednesday about how I think that we need our presidential candidates to be honest because clearly, no matter what fact checker you look at, both candidates said many inaccurate things, a friend of mine, Adam, on Facebook brought up a very good point that makes me want to add a little more nuance.
Adam pointed out that all of us would most likely “lie” in the sense that we would say something inaccurate while on stage. The fact checkers would probably then say that we had “lied.” In my own life, I say things that are inaccurate every day. I try not to, but sometimes I am simply wrong about what I say even though I have no intention of being wrong. He pointed out that nuance and expression are vital when even understanding things as mundane as “good morning.” In other words, we cannot just say all inaccurate statements are lies.
For example, let’s say I told someone that one of my coworkers was at his desk, and I truly believed he was there. Turns out, he was actually not at his desk at that moment because he had stepped away to get a drink of water. I didn’t intentionally mislead my coworker, but I was wrong.
That does not seem to be equivalent to a lie. It seems like a lie would be if I knew that my coworker was not at his desk but when asked about it, I said that he was there.
Clearly this is a trivial example, but my knowledge and intention play a role in whether or not something is really a lie. It isn’t simply a matter of accuracy; it seems that I can be honest and wrong simultaneously.
On the other side of the coin, I could say that my coworker was at his desk while believing he was not. Perhaps he is at his desk anyway. In this case, I would have been accurate in what I said, but I didn’t mean to be accurate because I didn’t believe he was there. I meant to mislead which strikes me as a lie even though my information turned out to be accurate. I can be right and lie simultaneously as well.
This is an important differentiation to make because in order to evaluate whether or not someone is lying, we necessarily have to delve into the intentions of the presidential candidates. On Wednesday, I did say I didn’t want to get into psychologically evaluating our presidential candidates, but it seems like there needs to be some of that if we are really going to evaluate whether or not they are truly lying or not.
We don’t have time to do that here today (join my Entering the Public Square Facebook group to discuss that or anything else), but I do have a few things that I think that might help us determine whether or not a candidate is perhaps just making a mistake out of lack of information or is actually deliberately lying. Maybe I can help you with your own psychological evaluation exercise when you hear something from a candidate that is not true.
First, think about the issue in question. Is this something that everyone running for president should know? Think about Gary Johnson and Aleppo. If a presidential candidate is asked about the Iran nuclear deal, it is safe to assume that he or she probably knows the basic outline of what went down in that agreement. If they don’t seem to even understand the agreed-upon basics of a situation prior to providing analysis on that event, he or she might be suffering from ignorance rather than deliberate lying. Ignorance is obviously a problem in and of itself, but it is not lying.
Then, we need to add to that calculation that, in our particular election, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are reasonably intelligent individuals. They have both been very successful in their careers, and they both have Ivy League degrees on their resumes. I know that we like to joke about both of them and question their intelligence, but I really think that both of them are reasonably intelligent people (I can already see the hate mail I am going to receive over this paragraph from both sides of the aisle).
When you listen to the debate then, maybe the candidates are not necessarily being dishonest, and maybe they are. There are times on stage when they will mess up and unintentionally say the wrong thing. Those are not considered lies in my mind; everyone messes up occasionally.
However, there are other times when we need to consider the issue at hand and whether or not a reasonably intelligent person who is running for president would make that mistake out of ignorance unintentionally. You could forgive a presidential candidate for accidentally misstating a minute detail about a minor bill stalled in a congressional committee. It isn’t that the candidate would do that intentionally, but mistakes do happen. I realize that. The fact checkers would consider this a lie, but I don’t think it would be.
If the situation doesn’t quite seem to fit that bill however and seems to be something that a reasonably intelligent presidential candidate ought to know, then perhaps we might have a deliberate misrepresentation on our hands, and that is what is particularly frightening when coming from the debate stage hosting the future leader of the free world. These are the lies that are particularly disturbing and are what I was trying to speak against on Wednesday.
Therefore, to my friend Adam who pointed out this need for nuance, well said. We do need to differentiate between what we mean by lying and simply making a mistake. For my part, I do personally believe that when there is a blatantly wrong statement spoken from the debate stage, it is more likely to be a lie than simply a mistake out of ignorance based on the qualifications of the people on stage and the qualifications of their support staff who are paid to help keep them informed. However, it is wise to not jump right to conclusions immediately.