Don't fall for Humpty Dumpty politics

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We got a fine lesson this week in the art of language — one reminiscent of Humpty Dumpty in Alice Through the Looking Glass who said, 'When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'

Humpty Dumpty style caricatures of Bill Shorten and Malcolm TurnbullThe Minister of Immigration, Peter Dutton, seems to have learned this lesson very well in relation to the word 'detention', which he redefined in relation to asylum seeker children to exclude not only those still remaining in Villawood (interestingly still called a 'detention centre') but also the 90 or so being sent back to languish on Nauru.

While the language game is scarcely unique to politicians, they have — with our connivance — turned it into a rare art form.

We would, in a heartbeat, sue our lawyer, accountant or estate agent for falsifying books or contracts or causing us to lose money on investments (think about the scandal surrounding financial advisors last year). It is doubly astonishing then that we have been thoroughly conditioned to expect economy with the truth from those who are supposed to represent us at the highest levels of government.

Indeed, the situation has got so bad that some politicians are explicit about this: think about John Howard's 'core' promises and Tony Abbott's comments that only his scripted statements should be relied on. (The latter raises an interesting version of the old 'liar paradox', since that statement was presumably not itself scripted.)

The temptation is to shrug and say, 'So what's new: pollies lie and the Pope is a Catholic?' Isn't all of this up there with the toilet habits of bears as an unremarkable description of the way the world works?

Yes and no. We may be used to politicians lying or breaking their promises but, if we accept it as part of the way the world works, then we must also accept that this says something deeper about the fitness for purpose of our political system.

Immanuel Kant, the famous 18th century German philosopher, said that lying was wrong because it disregarded the worth of the individual being lied to. That may sound like high-flown idealism and typically theoretical philosopher's waffle, but his reasoning is actually very practical.

 

"So what's new: pollies lie and the Pope is a Catholic. Isn't all of this up there with the toilet habits of bears as an unremarkable description of the way the world works? Yes and no."

 

For Kant, autonomy (the ability to make free decisions) is the top priority and makes one human. (There are problems with this idea but political decision-making is one area where it really works.) Lying is wrong because it saps autonomy — it deprives a person of the ability to make rational choices. We are social creatures, but once we know that we cannot expect the truth from each other, we have no idea what to make of the information we are fed. Society can no longer function properly.

One may, rightly, cavil at the inflexibility of Kant's rule. Where do the ethics lie, for example, when parishioners offering sanctuary to asylum seekers in their church tell the enquiring Border Force patrol that there are no refugees there?

Nevertheless, the general principle is sound — we are social creatures who make real decisions based on the representations of others. The problem is doubly acute when those who lie to us are those whom we have trusted to represent us in making decisions on how we are governed and have voted for them based on what turns out to be a false prospectus.

The answer usually given is that we should then vote for someone else next time. This, however, is where Kant's problem really hits home. Both sides of politics know that we have come to accept lies from politicians and therefore neither side is necessarily inclined to play it straight with us.

That, however, means that we cannot know whether to believe either side's election promises. Since the power of the local MP has long since become subordinated to the machinery of pre-selection committees, factions and party rooms, we have absolutely no idea what we are getting. Elections become a random choice between brands.

This is another (mostly unexpressed) reason why increasing numbers of voters in Australia, Europe and the US are becoming frustrated with 'establishment' politicians.

While one should be careful what one wishes for when it comes to specific anti-establishment candidates, this shedding of complaisance and suspicion of business as usual is probably the only thing that can save democratic structures.

As I have noted before, the advent of big money in modern politics and the lack of controls on that money in what used to be described as democracies mean that even the limited information which the brand names themselves used to provide are now pretty meaningless.

Major parties and institutions of all political stripes around the world are beholden to interests which, as this week's leak of the Panama Papers reminds us, exist in a world wide web of big money far beyond the control (or even the knowledge) of the average voter.

Voters' tacit acceptance of lying as a fact of political life — if it continues — is just one more nail in the coffin of democracy.

 


Justin GlynJustin Glyn SJ is studying for the priesthood. Previously he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, politicians, lying


 

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Existing comments

'Voters' tacit acceptance of lying as a fact of political life...'? Voters may recognise lying as a fact of current political life but I'm not convinced that they are prepared to condone it. Nearly one third of voters at the last election gave their first preference vote in the Senate to a candidate who was not from either of the major parties. Was this at least in part a conscious rejection of those with a track record in lying in favour of those with an as yet clean slate?
Ginger Meggs | 09 April 2016


Or, Justin, just one more nail amongst the many in the coffin of Western Civilisation.
john frawley | 11 April 2016


Without question, truth is immensely important in all of our lives (though, sometimes, human sensitivities require information to be withheld as well as the recognition that not all questions need to be answered or, even, ought legitimately to be asked). Regrettably, the degradation of truth is widespread in society, notably -- in recent years -- even in science as money and ambition (as in politics) have overcome some scientists. Not even those making comments to Eureka Street" are immune: for instance, I suspect that "Ginger Megges" is not the REAL name of one of your regular correspondents.
Dr John CARMODY | 11 April 2016


Terrific article .It expands our voting thinking.I often wondered how many border protections we had. 1.For the borders of Australia 2.Borders around the media 3.Borders around politicians.etc.
marlene bracks | 11 April 2016


Yes, Justin - plenty of Humpty Dumptys in Aussie politics. Mr Peter Dutton, whom Tony Abbott appointed as his "captive Immigration Minister", is a past master of inventing his version of the truth in his press releases. As the author of "People of the Lie" Dr M Scott Peck writes, lies are often half-truths cunningly woven together to confuse and manipulate the unwary. Any half truth is really just a disguised lie. As you put it so well, Justin - "The problem is doubly acute when those who lie to us are those whom we have trusted to represent us in making decisions on how we are governed, and have voted for them based on what turns out to be a false prospectus." AMEN
John Cronin, Toowoomba | 11 April 2016


In the interests of truth, I have a correction to the above. At least as far as the Villawood detainees go, I am advised that the Villawood arrangements were a compromise reached in agreement between the Department and the families to prevent separating the children from their families. These community detention arrangements do, in fact, allow much greater freedom than held detention. I was therefore wrong to describe this as mere sleight of hand. The point in relation to those being sent back to Nauru (as well as the broader Australian attempt to shift responsibility away from itself in relation to Manus and Nauru), however, stands.
Justin Glyn SJ | 11 April 2016


Justin, thank you for a most interesting article. Unfortunately I fear that it is rather late in the day. Disillusionment with, cynicism of, and hostility to politics and politicians is now so entrenched because of their being "economical with the truth" that more than one generation will be needed to repair the breach
Deena Bennett | 11 April 2016


I agree with Deena's view: our politicians have so frequently misled us that little to no credence is given to their words. "They're in election mode" used to be stated as an excuse for exaggeration, obfuscation and deceit. To day to be a politician is to be a deceiver in the eyes of many in the electorate. It will take men and women of principle in politics some time to change this view if only because they will need to be judged by how they honour their words rather than weasel to find excuses to dishonour them.
Ern Azzopardi | 14 April 2016


George Orwell in an essay, Politics and the English Language, written in 1946, wrote: "Political language - and with variations this is true of all political parties from Conservatives to Anarchists - is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectful, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." It falls to political journalists and commentators to expose the truth behind the sound bites, the door-step comments, and the platitudinous speeches. Once the Fourth Estate falls into the hands of media magnates or becomes dependent on Government largesse the chances of frank and fearless reporting and commentary become very slim indeed.
Uncle Pat | 15 April 2016


Is not Humpty Dumptyism all the rage in university departments that promote postmodernist theory?
John | 21 April 2016


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