Politics & The Truth

Honestly Speaking: The Mischief of Truth & Value of Lies!

Raymond S. Edwards

From my lips will come what is right; for my mouth will utter truth.


Imagine politicians reciting above preamble (Proverbs 6:7) with passionate sincerity! Still, my politician’s Oscar goes to disgraced former Chicago governor Rod Blagojevich for looking into the cameras and quoting Kipling “…….don’t deal in lies” before straight facedly declaring “I am confident I have the greatest ally on my side; the truth”!

Recent egregious transgressions of lies posturing as truth in the public domain have aroused urgent integrity concerns among leadership scholars not seen since Watergate. Of course, our Caribbean island states are themselves never short on the drama of lies as truth in public space.

The Eagles’ popularized myth (there ain’t no way to hide your lying eyes) has long been debunked by leaders. We’re not far from standard dictionaries safely defining leaders in general and politicians in particular as- Persons adroit; even gifted in telling lies while claiming truth.

But how do they pull it off with such ease while lying seems to torture the average person?

This essay is about why politicians lie and how to fix it. While exploring politics in the truth and politics of the truth; it boldly examines the nature and role of truth in public spheres. In a subject crying for lucidity I’m challenged for parsimony. I trust your curiosity and crave your tolerance.

Insight but No Help

A bit of nuanced research out of Columbia University’s business school (Carney et al, 2009) helps shed light on how leaders are able to pull off searing incisive lies without the slightest outward appearance of dishonesty!

In pertinent part findings claim the emotional satisfaction power yields produces anti-cortisol effects on the body- thereby shielding leaders from displaying physiological signs of stress and discomfort that lying normally produces in the average person. In other words, power, it seems, enhances the same emotional, cognitive, and physiological systems that lie telling depletes. So don’t look for normal cues such as shifting eyes, nervous looks, fidgeting feet and hands etc to detect a leader is untruthful; you’d be fooled. The feel of power or the quest for power renders leaders immune to such nervous effects. They’re able to act the lie-truth with super calm efficiency!

But explaining how leaders/politicians are able to lie comfortably is not the same as explaining why they actually lie. For that we must look elsewhere; and will come to shortly. But first let’s examine what professor Carney and other experts suggest can rectify lies in leaders and result in greater truthfulness.

Carney thinks “reminding a leader that the behavior is bad can get the person to stop engaging in those transgressions” and also feels “more discussions on ethics and integrity can help throw some cold water on fibbing bosses.” Peter Cohan (Values Leadership) opines it is the role of oversight bodies to stop lying executives. Mary Gentile (Giving Voice to Values) suggests letting it be known that an issue is known and understood will help leaders know they “can’t fly under the radar with deceit.” Even Harvard Business School has a suggestion for getting leaders to be more truthful. It’s called the “MBA Oath” and is designed to make leaders pledge to be ethical and think of the greater good. They “want it to be more than just words on a page” so they give signers an MBA Oath card to carry in their wallets.

I won’t be surprised if you’re chuckling- Reminds me of the Beatles famous Imagine. These specialists must be dreamers- and hope someday we’d join them so the world could be as one uh.

A Dose of Honesty

Leadership truthfulness in the public domain is messy, filled with drama; and does not come with easy answers. Honestly speaking why leaders and politicians lie so readily has very little to do with their ethical constructs, and a lot more to do with the nature and role of truth in public space.

That famous 16th century counselor of leaders, Machiavelli, has been long warning those who desire survival not to speak the truth when doing would likely cost them the kingdom. And who can forget Jack Nicholson’s epic self righteous indignation in A Few Good Men as he bellows “you want the truth; you can’t handle the truth”! A modern day version of Plato’s timeless assertion that leaders should withhold truth from subjects out of concern for their own good!

The irony is that despite the best concealment ploys, sooner rather than later truth seeps out; and people are forced to ‘handle it’. Time and time again they have demonstrated they can handle it. Wiser but sadder, it’s not that people can’t handle the truth; but more so that leaders don’t wish to be handled by the truth! And yet, it is still not that simple.

It is not so much that leaders in and of themselves do not wish to be handled by the truth; but that they have come to learn it’s not in their best interest to be handled by the truth. Honestly speaking, one must further concede there is value and seemingly virtue in leaders telling lies while pretending to speak truth.

What the Truth Has Become & How We Got Here

It seems inadequate to suggest truthfulness in leaders can be reduced to pedantic uttering such as honesty is the best policy, truth you win; lie you lose, or even truth shall set you free. Indeed it is also disingenuous to assume sitting in Sunday school and avowing to speak the truth and shame the devil is the same as standing on the pragmatic plains of real politick- where truth itself can be the devil with dangerous pitfalls and serious consequences.

Any honest discussion of truth and politics must be willing to acknowledge there is politics in the truth and politics of the truth; and that the notion we call truth is often just that, a notion; even a virtuously mischievous one.

Only a foolish politician falls for the calypsoian’s bait “tell we de truth so we could fix we business to suit” without realizing that fixing business likely includes voting out said leader for telling de truth. The polish prime minister waited six months after his appointment in 2008 to finally come clean with compatriots. “In the run up to elections I lied to you morning, noon and night” he confessed. Pressed by journalists on this alarming disclosure he further explained “that’s how I got elected.” Hinting of course had he spoke the truth it would not have happened.

To a large extent leaders in general and politicians in particular lie because publics often tend not to want to hear the truth as a first or primary recourse. As with any living organism the public tries to repel, or at least defer, stress caused by bad news or by any harbinger of discomfort. This is a subtly decided dysfunction, a conspiracy of convenience if you will. But there is more to the naughty dynamic of truth, and ultimately lies as truth, in public space!

In order to facilitate our decided dysfunction or conspiracy of convenience, two simultaneous operatives of truth are made to coexist. On one hand there is mental expectation of bare knuckle honesty from leaders; truth as principle. On the other hand there is truth as notion, strategy, mischief; even game. 

In this duality our mental expectations regarding truth are often in diagonal conflict with actual conditions under which leaders are forced to operate. No surprise really that this double-sided or two faced interplay of truth produces our broken politics, with the brinksmanship that largely defines it.

Let me illustrate how our current political landscape of truth as bare knuckle honesty and truth as mischief bears testimony to the politics in truth and the politics of truth.

Notice how oppositions always want governments to tell the people the truth; but only while in opposition. Notice how once they become government they also become strangers to the very truth they previously clamored for in the name of the people. And notice how the people accept this truth charade!

This stark dynamic confesses how truth is postured as bare knuckle honesty only in order to use it as deliberate strategy and mischievous notion. In this way truth is made to play arsonist, instrument or tool to effect professional derailment, expose psychological vulnerability and trigger political demise; while at the same time being used as fireman to propel and leverage power.

Of course governments know this only too well (after all they were once opposition) and therefore well understand their role regarding the truth is to be a great spin master- hedgy and untruthful enough to remain unexposed; while honest just enough not to be disgraced.

Two separate but much related observations help to summarize our predicament

  1. My position is that truth causes the same nervous effects in leaders/politicians that lies have on the average person. Accordingly, leaders/politicians are just as nervous about being caught in the truth as average persons are about being caught in a lie
  2. The crosswinds effect of expectation Vs reality regarding truth in public space forcibly reduces truth from principle to notion, strategy and game- leaving us with politics in truth and politics of truth– Which invariably results in the mischief of truth, and the value of lies. 

The Way Out: Partners in Problem Solving

As we round towards the end, what are our options regarding leaders and truthfulness? First, a soliloquy-

A young Caribbean minister recently admitted flawed oversight on his part and committed to preempt recurrence through robust care going forward. Immediately the opposition began shark like circles while the media activated feeding frenzy mode. Call in participants jeered. And of course, pundits pronounced final rites given public record confession.

Notice, not one sanguine sentiment praising honest public disclosure! Not one serious attempt to grasp an opportunity to engage a new social contract or telegraph a new leadership outlook between public and politicians! In preference for intrigue, mischief; game, a golden opportunity for fostering truthfulness- complete with structures of accountability including rewards/sanctions pertaining to a promised commitment of new carefulness went a-begging. It was disheartening.

Emerging from this entire expose on leadership and truth, a few options are available.

  1. Embrace Raw Pragmatism: In a bout of Freudian catharsis, a Caribbean politician went on record in suggesting we’d be all better off realizing and accepting politics has its own morality. That of course is not only an inadequate short cut to resolving a critical dilemma; but also a dangerous precedent with far reaching implications for social order.
  2. Officially Anoint Brinksmanship: In other words just be more open and accepting of our present order. A world in which the leader’s role is to develop adroitness in reading the public’s mood and rhythm for truth; while employing the requisite savvy for lies, half truths and innuendos, or at least incremental disclosure. We can keep this present order with its collectively conjured arrangement- In which we inadvertently conspire with ourselves against ourselves to create misleaders– Persons who lie enough to be liked while being truthful just enough not to be disgraced.  In this milieu we can live with the intrigue if we’re also prepared to live with the discontent and chivalry of tomfoolery- in which truth forever remains mischief or vice but seldom benefit, victim or villain but hardly victor; even attack or defense but never triumph.  
  3. Build A Higher Ethic, More Sophisticated Reality, A New Order: I speak here of establishing a greater nobility, a more wholesome rubric to guide leader/follower intercourse in public space. A partnership of responsibility between people and leaders; partners in problem solving instead of avoidance or deferment if you will. When publics begin to value/reward leaders for disclosure as well as capacity/acumen for innovative problem solving; but more importantly for ability to inspire joint problem solving with followers, then we’ll be ready to build this new reality- where truth emerges benefit, victor; triumph. Until the public is willing to play an active role in repositioning truth from where it is presently (i.e. being a two edged game and strategy) to being what it ought to be (i.e. a principle and means to betterment) we should not expect executives or political leaders to be excited or trusting about calls for truthful disclosure.

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