Sunday, 19 February 2017

You can't handle the truth!

One of the most fascinating aspects of the human condition is the way in which we deal with truth and untruth, reality and fantasy, fact and fiction. We can use fantasy and fiction to imagine other worlds and other “realities”, as well as to test ideas and hypotheses. The problems come when we knowingly use fiction to replace fact, and then try to present that fiction to the world as reality.

A good example of this was revealed last week by the Trump administration. Now, this blog is not necessarily the place to launch a political attack on Trump and his team, as, among other things, there are people far better equipped at doing that then I am. I will, however, take issue with the language that any politician uses to obfuscate the truth. I have no problem in calling out lies when I see language being used to pretend that they are anything but lies.

On 14th February Mike Flynn, Trump's national security adviser, resigned after it emerged that he had misled VP Mike Pence over his previous contacts with Russian officials. The exact words he used for his misdemeanour were “inadvertently briefed” and “incomplete information”. Now, let's analyse this. He briefed him. OK. That's his job, so I can accept that he opened his mouth and produced words designed to help Pence make a decision or come to a conclusion of some kind. Except that he wasn't briefing in this case – he was responding to a specific question as to whether he had discussed with Russian officials the prospect of raising sanctions imposed on Russia. What was required was a yes/no answer. There was no briefing required here.

Let's now examine “inadvertently”. defines “inadvertent” as “unintentional, heedless”. gives these synonyms (among others): careless, reckless, unintended, unwitting, chance, not on purpose, unpremeditated. So Flynn is saying that the “incomplete information” that he transmitted to Pence in their exchange on this matter somehow emanated from his mouth in an entirely unplanned, unintended and unpremeditated manner. In some way, words expressing that he did not discuss state matters with foreign officials somehow formulated themselves in his mind in an entirely unplanned way, and escaped from his mouth with no intention at all. And he is in one of the highest advisory positions in the administration of the most powerful country in the world. In other words, as far as he is concerned, he didn't lie, as that would have involved premeditation, intention and clear denial of a manifest truth of which he was certainly aware as he had actually held the talks with the Russians.

Of course, Flynn isn't the only politician to engage in this type of wordplay in an attempt to save their bacon. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have confessed that they “misspoke” - Trump when referring to abortion and Clinton when referring to her trip to Bosnia. In fact, “misspeak” has a history stretching back to Old English, though it mostly meant “murmur”, “grumble”, “speak disrespectfully” and “pronounce incorrectly”. However, more recently, especially under the influence of politics in America, it has come to mean increasingly “avoid telling the truth” under the guise of not saying what you intended to say. Another expression for lying, “economical with the truth”, entered political discourse during a 1986 trial over a book, Spycatcher, which the British government was trying to stop from being published in the UK. Alan Clark, a minister in Margaret Thatcher's government, admitted to being “economical with the actualit√®” in Parliament, which stretches the denial of lying even more. Careful research will no doubt produce numerous other examples of alternative expressions for telling lies.

Don't get me wrong. Humans throughout history have obfuscated, denied and dissembled for a variety of reasons. We use euphemisms and other expressions to avoid mentioning the real name of something. The ancient Greeks believed that there existed infernal goddesses known as the Furies, who punished people for breaking their oaths. However, they usually referred to them as the Eumenides, a euphemism which meant “kindly ones”, for fear of arousing their wrath by calling them by their real names. The Black Sea was stormy and difficult to navigate in the ancient world, so the Greeks called it Pontos Euxeinos, literally “hospitable sea”, to avoid incurring its wrath. Some seemingly innocuous words and expressions are even taboo. The Russian for bear, medved, literally “honey eater”, is thought to have been used to avoid uttering the real name of the animal, which has always been a powerful figure in Russian folklore. “The Scottish play” is used to avoid uttering “Macbeth”, “pass on” is used to avoid “die”, and so on. However, in most of these cases the aim is usually to avoid hurting feelings, insulting people, provoking conflict or raising a contentious subject. These ways of speaking are part of our human nature.

Let's be clear, though. When it comes to politicians, who we entrust with our votes to govern our countries, societies and lives for our good, we have every right to expect them to give us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and not conceal it for their own benefit. Politicians use expressions such as “inadvertently advise”, “misspeak oneself” and “be economical with the truth” to deliberately lie. If something is a matter of state secrecy and security, then fine - we can all accept that. Just say so. We're not children to protect from the awful truth. If they want our trust, they should just come out with the truth when there is no alternative. We can handle it. They can't.