2016-08-04 – A couple years ago I proposed a holiday that I called Diogenes Day dedicated to the telling of truth. It’s a kind of anti-April Fools’ Day. It is observed on October 1 each year.
The truth is: it hasn’t caught on.
But each year I try to warn you that it’s coming up and use the occasion to muse about the nature of truth. This year is no exception because we have an interesting presidential campaign in progress that is testing our ideas about truth.
On the one hand, we have Hillary Clinton, who has a reputation for being a particularly dishonest politician—a reputation that I think is vastly overblown. On the other hand, we have Donald Trump, a man whose dishonesty is overshadowed by his overblown hair.
As a truth seeker, it seems weird to me that, regarding Hillary, we pick, pick, pick until we find a lie, and regarding Trump . . . well, we don’t have to dig very deep.
Of course, both of these characters could use a holiday like Diogenes Day. But it is a lie to equate the two on the truth-telling scale.
Now, I’m having a little difficulty here. What I’d like to do is compare the two. But it’s like comparing an elephant and a flea. You can’t put an elephant and a flea in the same frame and see them both. You have to zoom back to see the elephant, but then you can’t see the flea. Or you have to zoom way in to see the flea, but then you can’t see the elephant.
But let’s try.
Pulitzer Prize winner PolitiFact keeps scorecards on the truthfulness of these two candidates (and many more). You can find Hillary’s here and The Donald’s here. PolitiFact’s findings are summarized in the following chart:
If you’ve been paying attention to the campaigns, it should not surprise you that Hillary’s record is skewed toward honesty and Trump’s record is skewed toward dishonesty . . . big time.
But you might want to debate this conclusion.
You could say, “Steve, PolitiFact skews liberal, so I don’t believe it.” I chose PolitiFact because I believe it is generally accepted as neutral, but you can go in and review their findings on hundreds of statements made by each candidate. I’ve looked at some, but not all of them. They seem reasonable.
But I’m not even vouching for PolitiFact here. I’m using it as part of my musing about the nature of truth.
The other knock I see about PolitiFact’s ratings is that all statements, trivial and monumental, are considered to be the same.
But we have different truth expectations about different kinds of statements. Compare these two statements you might say to your spouse:
- “You look wonderful tonight.”
- “I am 100% faithful to you.”
If the first one is a lie, no huge deal. If the second one is a lie, your marriage could be over. How should these two types of lies figure into a person’s reputation for truthfulness? How, for example do you compare the following two statements that PolitiFact rated as “Pants on Fire”:
- Donald: “As usual, Hillary & the Dems are trying to rig the debates so 2 are up against major NFL games.”
- Hillary [regarding the presence of classified information in her email]: “Comey said my answers were truthful, and what I’ve said is consistent with what I have told the American people.”
One statement (Donald’s) is made without regard for truth. As far as Donald is concerned, it doesn’t matter. Truth is not a consideration for him. He says whatever comes to mind that suits his purposes. It’s a manipulative statement and that’s all that counts.
The other statement (Hillary’s) is an opinion, not a statement of fact. The factual element is comparing Comey’s statement “we have no basis to conclude she lied to the FBI” with Hillary’s “Comey said my answers were truthful.” There’s definitely a difference between the two, but I’m not sure that makes it a lie. It’s an opinion. Certainly Hillary said what she said to manipulate.
Are these statements comparable? And are pants-on-fire statements worse coming from someone who has a general record of telling the truth or coming from someone who has a general record of telling lies.
The reason lying is a problem is that lies undermine trust. Can we trust The Donald? Can we trust Hillary? And how do these statements affect that trust.
That’s the question for Diogenes day. We have just under two months to get ready for it.