Sissela Bok: Secrets and Lies in Politics and Elections

Sissela Bok: Secrets and Lies in Politics and Elections

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Tuesday, November 1, 2016, 12:00-1:00 p.m.
Taubman 275

November 1, 2016—Sissela Bok, writer, philosopher, and a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, provided a nuanced view on how lies and secrets in politics have impacted public trust and the 2016 election. Below are some highlights from the conversation, as well as the full audio recording. Also available on iTunes, Google Play (login required), and iHeartRadio.

Are lies becoming more widespread in politics?

We can’t necessarily say that politicians tell more lies and have more secrets. What we can say, more and more, indeed for every election, is that we in the public are exposed to endless instances of lying.

“For every single election, people have asked me, isn’t this the worst it’s ever been? Has there ever been so much lying as now? Has there ever been so much secrecy?”

“We can’t necessarily say that politicians tell more lies and have more secrets. What we can say, more and more, indeed for every election, is that we in the public are exposed to endless instances of lying. It comes at us on television, on Facebook, everything else. That’s why people get the feeling ‘well, lying is all around.’ Many people think that all politicians lie, for example, which of course is ridiculous…it’s really a slur on a whole category of human beings to say that they all lie.”

“I have always hesitated to say ‘this election is really unusual.’ And yet, sometime in the course of the summer I began to think that this campaign and this election, really was—from the point of view of the amount of lying, and the types of lying, and also from the point of view of secrecy to some extent…and from the point of view of trust.”

The erosion of public trust

“Trust is now at an all-time low, and it has remained so for longer than it ever has before…In the Eisenhower era, it was quite high and then it went down and down and down, partly because of Vietnam and Watergate. It’s had its up and downs…but now it is very low.”

On the nature of lying in the 2016 election

“When I wrote my book [Lying: Moral Choice in Private and Public Life], I wanted to concentrate on clear-cut lies…those I defined as statements that are made by somebody who thinks that [his or her] statements are false, and intends to mislead those who are listening or reading…that’s very different from innuendo, and shading the truth in various ways…this year, we really are aware of so many different types [of lies], going out over so many different kinds of media.”

“When it comes to secrecy, yes we have the revelations of Wikileaks, yes we have emails, but there is one thing that has struck me more and more as this campaign has gone on, and that is the open-faced, bare-faced lying…repeated over and over again.”

“Some people say ‘it doesn’t matter to me, my candidate lies because the other one is even worse,’ and that’s something that Trump has told his followers, ‘if you think that I’m lying, look at her’…the more we lie, the more we hurt ourselves…we hurt our fellow professionals, whether they be journalists or politicians, and we damage trust so much.”

Secrecy, Privacy, and Wikileaks

Every lie keeps something secret, namely the thing you’re lying about, but that doesn’t mean that every secret involves lying.

“Secrets, as we all know, are often desperately needed. Everybody needs to keep something to himself or herself. There are quite wonderful secrets, birthday plans for example…so even though lying on the whole is wrong…maybe you have a reason to lie, to save a life or something—that’s very different from secrecy. Secrecy is not offhand either right or wrong. Secrets are indeed tremendously dangerous when they hide something criminal.”

“Every lie keeps something secret, namely the thing you’re lying about, but that doesn’t mean that every secret involves lying. There we have to be careful to protect people’s right to keep things to themselves, and privacy is one element of that. At the same time, we also have to be aware of the dangers from all that secrecy covers up, and keeps from being revealed.”

“On one hand, Wikileaks makes people more careful about what they say. On the other hand, it can be bad for negotiation…we have to go back, I think, to ways in which negotiation used to be carried on, often in a closed room, for example…it’s very important to maintain the possibility of negotiating without having everything out on the table. Because if everything is out that you’re negotiating about, there are going to be so many interest groups that are going to try to get in there and stop the negotiation before it’s over.”

Today’s cultural paradox

What’s happening in our culture right now is this conflict between, on the one hand, often desperate desire for openness and transparency…and on the other hand, a great amount of government secrecy.

“What’s happening in our culture right now is this conflict between, on the one hand, often desperate desire for openness and transparency and sharing everything on Facebook, and on the other hand, a great amount of government secrecy. Executive privilege has expanded a lot even since the time of President Clinton, and I think President Obama has continued that expansion. So that’s secrecy of a form that I think is problematic for our democracy.”

How the media influences perceptions of the candidates

“The statistics by PolitiFact say that Donald Trump has either mostly false, false, or pants on fire statements over 70 percent of the time, and Hillary Clinton 26 percent of the time…PolitiFact doesn’t use the word lie…because they cannot know whether a false statement is also a lie. A lie involves a person saying something that he or she knows is false and intends to mislead. You can say false things, but you may not intend to mislead.”

“What happens though, and I’ve seen this time and time again in different articles—Hillary Clinton lies 26 percent of the time, Donald Trump lies 70 percent of the time…what’s forgotten in how this is transmitted is that these are statements selected by PolitiFact, and of those statements, 70 percent and 26 percent turn out to be incorrect. That is immediately transmitted, however, not by all journalists, but often, as talking about lying or misleading. That, I think, is very dangerous…so many people now believe, well, if there’s that much lying—26 percent is quite a lot for Hillary Clinton too—if that’s the case…a number of people may decide, some young people in particular, not to have anything to do with voting at all.”

Article by Nilagia McCoy of the Shorenstein Center.