The Politically-Motivated Scold: “He’s a Liar”

Apparently one of the worst things you can call someone is a ‘liar.’ That accusation is thrown around repeatedly by President Trump’s critics and opponents. But it’s not only said of Trump. When Brent Kavanaugh wouldn’t confess to operating a gang rape fest in college, he was accused by many of lying despite no evidence backing the accusation.

Accusing someone of being a liar is a cheap way of attacking them. The accusation is taken as proof––no evidence needed. It is assumed the accusation must be true; it’s too serious to be levied on a whim.

Let’s look at the accusation that Donald Trump is an inveterate liar.

Differences of Opinon

A large number of the lies attributed to Donald Trump are differences in opinion, not fact. If he says his administration passed the largest tax cut in the country’s history, is it a lie if someone claims the numbers don’t back his claim? First, one has to establish that Trump is wrong; second that he knew he was wrong when he made the claim. But what if discrepancy between the fact checker’s calculation comes down to a difference in what is being measured? Changes in the tax code affect people differently depending on tax bracket. Thus, it’s easy to cherry pick numbers and accuse your opponent of lying about the facts. This technique of calling a difference of opinion a lie is politically motivated. It’s not designed to get at the “truth.” The goal is to skewer your opponent.

Hyperbole

The President uses hyperbole as a rhetorical devise. To some critics, his exagerations are lies, but it’s not that simple. If someone consciously exagerates to make a point, is that a lie or simply a means the speaker is using to get his point across? The speaker might admit he exagerated a point, assuming the listener is smart enough to distinguish between hyperbole and an intent to deceive.

When the president says his administration has accomplished more in two and a half years than any other president is that something that can be disproved? It can be challenged, but it’s a matter of opinion, not fact.

Can Someone Lie without Intent?

A core problem with accusing someone of lying the accuser should be able to prove that the accused knew his facts were wrong when he made the offending statement. Trump has been accused of having lied about the size of his inauguration crowd versus Obama’s, but can you prove he knew the facts and intentionally lied about it? What’s his obligation in terms of obtaining the facts? What if someone gave him the incorrect information? What is his obligation in terms of correcting an error? Doesn’t it depend on the issue. Since the size of a crowd has little bearing on anything of import, can it be held against Trump for not issuing an apology if indeed he was wrong?

Does Context Matter?

Does whether someone can be accused of lying depend on the context? If a reporter button-holes a politician with a question, does his answer demand the same level of accuracy as testimony in court or when submitting prepared remarks? President Trump likes to play games with the media. He says things to get their goat. One of the examples of how his opponents have tried to make him out to have colluded with Russia in 2016 was his remark that someone should ask the Russians if they know the whereabouts of the missing emails from Hillary’s server. Is it his fault that his tease was taken seriously and used as justification for his being investigated as a traitor?

The Problem That Comes from Accusing Someone of Lying

The danger of accusing someone of lying when you aren’t distinguishing between rhetoric and fact is that it provides a justification in the mind of those who buy the accusation to ignore evidence to the contrary. If you think someone lies all day long, you probably believe everything that person says is a lie. Then you stop listening and paying attention to what that person does, which in the end is the goal of the accuser. The accuser wants you to buy their lies and stop using your reasoning powers to make judgements based on facts. Sadly this technique seems to be working on a lot of people.

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