Sunday, March 27, 2016

Kids and politicians should avoid lying

When I was a kid growing up in Northern New Jersey, my parents would regularly shop at a supermarket that was next door to a discount department store. The department store had an arcade that consisted of a dozen games. My favorite was a baseball game where you used one button to control the speed of a pitched ball bearing and another button to swing a bat at the ball. The thrill of getting enough base hits to score some runs was enough to keep my 11-year-old self-occupied until my parents finished grocery shopping and came to retrieve me.

On one occasion, I saw that there was an unplayed game left on the baseball machine so I finished playing it. When that game was complete, another game started up. I played that one too. And then another. Finally, after about 10 minutes, the guy who regularly repaired the arcade machines walked over to me and asked, "Did you pay for that game?"

I hesitated, but could only think to respond, "I only have a few hits left."

That was when he pointed to the coin slots that had black electrical tape over them. No one could have inserted any coins to play. He knew I hadn't paid to play. I knew it too.

A question that I've received from readers in one form or another over the past several months is whether it's ethical for politicians to deny responsibility for something they've said or done. I suspect they know it's not.

I was 11 when it was confirmed for me that denying something that clearly I'd done was not the right thing to do.

For politicians, who are adults with rich life experiences, they should know better than to deny the obvious. It's not just that their earlier comments can be trotted out on tape to make them look foolish as they contradict themselves. More than one politician has found himself or herself mocked by Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert, or another late-night comedian who runs rapid fire video clips catching the politician contradicting or denying something he or she had previously said.

Getting caught may be a deterrent, but it's not the reason not to lie. If politicians expect voters to trust them, they should take responsibility for their words.

It's reasonable for politicians to withhold information in the interest of national security. It's a whole different thing when a politician says that maybe a demonstrator at one of his events "should have been roughed up" or says of another that "I'd like to punch him in the face" and then tells an anchor of a network morning news show, "I don't condone violence."

Just as I was confronted by the arcade game worker years ago, panicked, and didn't want to get caught doing something wrong, it's easy to imagine how politicians caught behaving inconsistently or badly might panic and reach for what they think is strength in a lie.

I was wrong, but I was 11 years old. Adult politicians should know better. The right thing would be for them to think about what they're saying before they say it. But when they do say it, they should own their words. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


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