Growing up, I was taught that lying was a very bad thing. There’s even a Commandment against it. Unlike a simple mistake, a lie is a voluntary act intended to cause harm. Everyone’s favorite dictionary, Wikipedia, defines it thusly: ”A lie is a statement that the stating party believes to be false and that is made with the intention to deceive.” Calling someone a liar was a very strong accusation exposing the individual to public shame. And lying carried consequences.
Fast forward to today. We have now trivialized the term with overuse as a cynical tool of our hyper-legalistic, hyper-partisan, attack-demean-destroy-dismiss style of political warfare. An example: let’s say a candidate makes the claim that our country lost 70,000 factories over a period of time. He or she neglects to use the qualifier “about.” If the actual number is 68,000, some people would yell “liar!” (and probably be silent if the number were 72,000 or otherwise supportive of their particular agenda). The basic point being made is soon lost in the hail of invective directed at the individual’s character in a classic ad hominem attack (def. – a logical fallacy in which an argument is rebutted by attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument … rather than attacking the substance of the argument itself). Attack begets counterattack and so on until all hope of meaningful debate is lost. This is the personalization of politics, and no candidate or political party can claim innocence in creating this mess. In the meantime, the media reports on the fighting as if that were the real news, leaving the public confused, anxious and dismayed. And no one is held to account for anything.
What are we teaching our children? That it is OK to lie? That everyone does it? That we can’t trust what anyone says anymore, particularly our leaders? That deceit carries no consequences? That name calling works and character assassination is an acceptable way of advancing or defending one’s position? This is all really ugly, and it has to stop.
A modest proposal: Let’s reassert the original definition of lying – actual knowledge of falsehood and intent to deceive – and hold liars properly to account. Let’s push back on the use of that term for anything else. Perhaps then we can get back to discussing the real issues and challenges that face us all.