Sunday, December 16, 2018

Confound everyone by telling the truth

Over the first 649 days of his presidency, Donald J. Trump has made 6,420 false or misleading claims, according to the writers of "The Fact Checker" column in The Washington Post. Keeping track of all of this massive volume "consumed the weekends and nights of The Fact Checker staff."

The Fact Checker writers noted that in his first nine months in office, the president had made 1,138 false or misleading statements, or about five per day. But the president made 1,419 in the seven weeks before the midterm elections, upping his game to 30 misstatements per day.

So "few lies are solitary ones," Sissela Bok wrote in Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (Vintage Books, 1989). "It is easy, a wit observed, to tell a lie, but hard to tell only one."

What's curious about the president's misstatements is that many of them can easily be checked with a quick Google search.

Typically, a liar would blanch at the thought of ever getting caught in a lie. It's not, after all, the first lie which is typically the problem, but the additional lies that are needed to support that first lie. It can be exhausting for most liars to keep track of the lies or misstatements to avoid getting caught.

It "takes an excellent memory to keep one's untruths in good repair and disentangled," wrote Bok. "The sheer energy the liar has to devote to shoring them up is energy the honest man can dispose of freely."

Nevertheless, the president's misstatements persist. But this too would come as no surprise to Bok. "After the first lies," she wrote, "others can come more easily. Psychological barriers wear down; lies seem more necessary, less reprehensible..."

The temptation might be to observe such behavior and determine that deliberately misstating or outright lying is not only acceptable, but necessary to achieve desired goals. A passage from the Book of Isaiah in the Old Testament comes to mind: "So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance. Truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter. Truth is lacking, and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey."

Those who speak truth when all around them don't risk making themselves a target. The writers of The Fact Checker column can likely attest to being the recipient of many a well-targeted Tweet.

Ultimately, however, lies or misstatements take a toll -- if not on the person making them, then on those people who find themselves deliberately telling lies or making misstatements to help cover for the originator. The right thing is to avoid making deliberate misstatements and, when faced with the choice of whether to cover someone else's lie with a lie of their own if doing so results in getting them closer to the person they swore they never wanted to become.

Bok's book on lying proves an instructive primer on how destructive lies in public and private life can be. It is also a book chock full of observations from other thinkers on lying's lengthy history and the ensuing havoc wrought. Included among these is one from writer Mark Twain, which might prove a wonderful positive pivot if the right people are listening and taking heed: "When in doubt, tell the truth. It will confound your enemies and astound your friends." 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior 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 



Phil Clutts said...

It is difficult to distinguish between lies, exaggerations, and distortions (a disgustingly common practice among politicians), but it may be misleading to say that the president has averaged x number of false or misleading claims a day, when some of those claims are frequently repeated (like “the biggest tax cut in history.” Is it worse for him to repeat the same “lie” (“the biggest tax cut in history”) five times or state five different lies once?
As reprehensible as straying from the truth is, Trump’s behavior reminds me of the punch line of the old joke about the stubborn mule: “First, you have to get their attention.” He knows he can be fact-checked, but he knows the opposition has indulged in ugly distortion too. Let’s hope that his ends justify his means.

Holly said...

I’m with you on the ethical perspective. Sometimes I think we may be the only ones keeping track of Trump’s inconsistencies and the only ones who assume Trump would wish to be consistent, and worry about the consequences if he were not and got caught. We start from the assumption that truth and reasonable consistency are the good and desirable. But Trump is not trying and failing to be honest or consistent; he’s on a different trajectory altogether, outside the constraints of doing the right thing. His aim is a gut appeal where truth, logic, and consistency are wasted. If you are appealing to the belly, not the brain, what’s accuracy got to do with it? It’s like asking jazz to stick consistently to the metronome or campfire stories to be verifiable--they aren’t even trying for it. And Trump gets caught all the time, to his satisfaction. He’s with Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself.” if he were a '70s sitcom dad,it would be okay.