Quote of the Day

The Republican Presidential candidate debate held by Fox News in Ohio yesterday was mostly a game of hand grenade volleyball, as the “moderators” made every effort to bait the candidates to attack each other and offer intemperate answers.  But, there was one small moment of decency in the affair, which is the source of today’s quote of the day.

At about 8:10 p.m., New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was asked if former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee is lying when he say that Social Security and Medicare can be saved without significant overhauls.  Christie replies:

He’s not lying.  He’s just wrong.

Like Colorado Pols from whom I obtained the report of the debate, I think it is a great line.*

One of the real foundations of civility in the practice of law, which applies equally well to politics and business, is to recognize that there is a difference between saying something that you do not believe to be true, and lying.

When you accuse someone of lying you are making an ad hominem attack directed at their character that poisons the well of any future communication or cooperation.  Sometimes, someone is so bad that it is appropriate to poison that well because you don’t want to communicate or deal with someone like that.

But, usually, giving someone, particular a potential powerful ally in future dealings, the benefit of the doubt is the better course of action.  People like politicians, diplomats, businessmen and lawyers (professional negotiators all) frequently have repeat dealings with each other related to a wide variety of issues, both in the matter they are currently working together upon and in future completely unrelated matters.

So, crossing the line from giving the other side the benefit of the doubt and continuing to try to deal with someone in a civil matter to determining that the other person is an untrustworthy individual who should be shunned or dealt with through demands imposed by force or threat of force (physical or legal), is a grave one that should be taken only when absolutely necessary.

Also, assuming that someone is not lying is wise because in the worlds of politics, diplomacy, business and law, often someone who says something that seems obviously false to you, really isn’t lying. When you are lying, you know that the statement you are making is false and you make it with the intent that someone else will be deceived by your statement.  In contrast, if you actually believe that what you are saying is not false, you are simply mistaken.

In real life, and in particular, in matters of government policies, it is not at all uncommon for people to have inaccurate but sincere beliefs that are deeply colored by cognitive biases, attitudes about which purported experts you trust.  Few people know enough about these policy issues, and nobody knows enough about all of these policy issues, to form their own independent opinions based upon the raw facts.  Everybody, even the people who look at the raw facts, receives expert opinions about which policy is right and often, more than one expert who superficially seem to both be qualified, provide contradictory advice for a whole host of reasons that go into the complicated process of analyzing complex questions like “Can Social Security and Medicare be saved without significant overhauls?”

Questions like these almost always themselves contain inherent ambiguities (what changes to the program count as “significant overhauls”) and potentially false assumptions (Social Security and Medicare are broken in a way that will cause some serious but unstated consequence, unless they are “saved”).  One of the key elements of analyzing policy is making sure that you are asking the right question and that the question is a valid one, and not just that you are giving the right answer to the question asked.

This is why, in defamation law and the law of fraud, the law recognizes that opinions are never inherently false, which recognizes, basically, the inherent complexity of how opinions (which most statements about policy matters amount to) are formed.

There are some narrow exceptions to this rule that are pertinent to accusations of lying in debates as well.   An opinion that you claim to hold, when you don’t actually hold that opinion is false.  For example, if I said that I believed that my neighbor’s German shepherd was cute and adorable, I would be lying.  It might be a “white lie” that is justified under the circumstances and couldn’t easily be disproven, but it would still be a lie.  (I personally believe that dogs are for soup.)

Also, some statements in the form of opinions so strongly imply a factual basis, for instance, because they would be almost impossible to sincerely hold if a person had knowledge of certain facts, that the statement of opinion implies a statement about those facts which can be false.  If I say that it is my opinion that a company is financially sound, that statement might mean a multitude of things, but it is probably inconsistent to the extent that it would be a lie, with me having personal knowledge that the company had billions of dollars more of debt than assets, was far behind in paying all of its bills many of which had been referred to collections, and had just lost the contract that was to have provided two-thirds of its revenues for the next six months.

Finally, there are statements that are not meant to be taken literally which a reasonable listener should understand were not offered in that sense from context.  If an ordinary health person in the United States says in casual conversation that, “It would kill me to learn my son wasn’t going to graduate on time.”, the speaker is using a figure of speech, and not lying, even if he is actually certain that he would go on living if he learned that fact.

In sum, there are few more important lessons to learn than that someone can be wrong and say something that you believe to be untrue, without lying.  And, acknowledging that this is true can transform the way that you deal with other people for the better.

The fact that the sentiment and the speaker’s attitudes about civility in political tactics, that I’ve just discussed in this fairly long blog post, can be summed up in a six word sentence delivered on the fly (albeit probably with long hours of preparation and coaching before hand), is what makes today’s quote of the day so great.

It also enhanced my respect for Chris Christie whose candidacy was tarnished almost on day one from aspersions on his character arising from “Bridgegate”.

* I couldn’t have watched it live if I wanted to, because I don’t have a television that receives cable television or broadcast television and don’t subscribe to a screening service that provides it.

from Wash Park Prophet http://ift.tt/1Ee6ugx
via Denver News

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