Tell Us the Truth: What's Wrong with Celebrities and Politicians Lying?

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Tell Us the Truth: What's Wrong with Celebrities and Politicians Lying?

On May 27, Congressman Anthony Weiner sent a link to an indecent image to a Twitter follower in Bellingham, Washington. When the initial story broke, Weiner claimed that his account had been hacked and that the image was not of him, but the work of malicious, conservative bloggers. Within a few days, the truth that Weiner had sent the image—and many others like it to women around the country—was cited as his reason for resigning.

Why are we so drawn to instances of public lying? At first it may seem like nothing more than a distraction—celebrities or politicians with too much free time or too much money. Why should anyone care about the indiscretions of a member of Congress or a professional baseball player?

At a time when our country is fighting two wars and dealing with an historic economic crisis, do the indiscretions of a single member of Congress really make any difference? According to Michael Beltz, Lecturer in the Department of Philosphy and Religion, the answer is a resounding “yes.”

We do have a reason to care when a public official lies because the act of lying is harmful. “One of the questions we face is what harm occurs when someone lies,” says Beltz. “If someone steals your wallet … restitution is very easy in that case. The way you can be made whole again is by being given back your money plus interest.”

What Lies Do

Lying (or perjury in the judicial sense) creates a murkier environment where the person hearing the lie is harmed by receiving a distorted view of the world, possibly forcing them to make a choice they otherwise would not have made. “A successful lie,” says Beltz, “changes a person’s belief state. They believe something about the world that isn’t true. If you believe something that isn’t true, your actions will not be the same as the actions you would have taken had you not been lied to.”

In the case of a person lying to a public official, we are all harmed, says Beltz, because that public official being lied to represents all of us. In the case of Roger Clemens, who is accused of lying to Congress, the issue is not whether or not he took steroids. Rather, we need to know if he lied to our representatives. “If [Clemens] lied to Congress, the harm that occurs is that the Congress member hearing those is likely to pass laws, to do investigations, to do a variety of things based upon the worldview that they believe is correct.”

At the heart of the issue is intent. When one lies, they are choosing to deceive another person, thereby working to actively coerce them into an action of the liar’s choosing. In some cases this might be as simple as a “white lie,” meant to ease an awkward situation, or a “barefaced” lie designed to keep one out of bigger trouble. Neither is better or worse than the other, Beltz says, because at their core, “when a person lies they are saying they don’t respect the decision-making abilities of other individuals.”

Everybody's Doing It

According to Allison Kornet in her article The Truth About Lying, “Both men and women lie in approximately a fifth of their social exchanges lasting 10 or more minutes; over the course of a week they deceive about 30 percent of those with whom they interact one-on-one.” Many of these lies take the form of protecting another’s feelings, such as not sharing one’s true opinions about a friend’s haircut or new boyfriend. In general, women were found to lie in order to protect feelings; men were more likely to lie about themselves.

Most people, according to Kornet, lie once or twice a day, "almost as often as they snack from the refrigerator or brush their teeth." We lie to explain our role in uncomfortable situations, like attributing our tardiness to traffic. People may suspect we are not being truthful but why make a big deal out of it? To do so might embarrass them as well.

There are, of course, cases that don’t fit the mold. Andrew Young, a key staff member in John Edwards’ 2008 presidential campaign, lied to protect his boss. Edwards had a child with his mistress, Rielle Hunter—a fact that could have derailed (and ultimately did destroy) a potentially bright political career. To protect his boss’ reputation, Young claimed paternity of the child—and Edwards let him.

According to Beltz, this lie serves a different purpose. In a case like Young’s the purpose is partly to deceive people about the paternity of a child but also to raise Young to the same moral level as Edwards by protecting him. There is no question that Edwards would never consider lying on Young’s behalf. Superiors seldom lie for a subordinate—they have nothing to gain.

Lying Affects Us All

The issue of lying is not some abstract problem for celebrities and politicians. In fact, all of us, every day, are paying for people to deal with the effects of others’ lies.

James B. Stewart, author of Tangled Webs: How False Statements are Undermining America, believes the problem of lying in our judicial system has reached the level of an epidemic. “There aren’t any statistics on how much lying is going on. All I can provide is anecdotal evidence from people that I was talking to. I can tell you that every single prosecutor told me that they thought it was out of control. One of them said, 'Every day I come in to work expecting to be lied to, under oath, or in circumstances where it is a false statement.'"

Lying then, is just 'the cost of doing business,' on some level. Without lying, communication would be hopelessly cumbersome or perhaps impossible as we understand it. And, there is some evidence to suggest this is “OK” with us. As Beltz states, “People in general … if they successfully lie … they don’t have the same moral negative feeling about that, even though lying is such a deep, common morality issue that people are opposed to. Instead, people feel bad because they get caught. Not because they lied.”

In the final analysis, it may not matter to you that Anthony Weiner sent lewd pictures to women he never met, that Martha Stewart tried to save herself over $40,000 by lying to the Securities and Exchange Commission, that Rod Blagojevich lied about his intention to sell a Senate seat in Illinois, or that Scooter Libby lied to investigators repeatedly about his role in the Valerie Plame affair. It should. It may seem harmless, but they're lying to you.

Michael Beltz

Craig Garaas-Johnson News & Features Editor Michael Beltz

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