I write this on the day when I read of Theresa May’s deputy, Damian Green, resigning, admitting to “”inaccurate and misleading” statements about pornography found on his parliamentary computer. I suppose I should not be surprised – there have been plenty of misleading statements by those in authority – whether they relate to personal moral questions or to political decisions.
My eyes were first opened when I read Tom Bower’s Broken Vows which described important episodes in Tony Blair’s period as Prime Minister. It seemed to me that honest, clear statements were out of fashion: it was not so much the lies told but the almost invariable capacity of those in charge to shape their phrasing in a way which supported their own views and ending up by deceiving their listeners. And that means us. And of course if a statement turned out to be an embarrassment, a little ingenuity would be needed to show that the statement had been misunderstood.
I am not naive – perhaps all of us have been guilty of deceits in our time – but I am scandalised by the thought that political statements appear to have abandoned any attempt to achieve the truth. All that matters is that the audience is persuaded to favour the speaker. Truth has no a value in the public forum.
Of course this is not a problem confined to the 21st century. Plato and Aristotle both wrote about rhetoric. Plato was attacking the dishonesty of rhetoric, Aristotle provided a handbook on how to make the power of rhetoric more persuasive. Ironically Plato’s attack is a delight to read while Aristotle is rather boring. The best example of effective rhetoric in literature is Mark Antony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen”. Since I cannot conceive of a Secondsight Blog user not having a Shakespeare at hand, look it up and remind yourself. (I daresay it’s on the Internet, too.)
I think we accept that telling the truth, or not deceiving our neighbour, is required by natural law: we are by nature social animals and so in order to flourish we must communicate truthfully or, if you prefer, we must avoid damaging our neighbour’s rights by our deceit. The measure, I think, does not lie in the exact words but whether the truth in the speaker’s mind is the truth which is conveyed to the listener.
So now, children, here is your homework. Look out for politicians and similar, whether they are presenting an attractive idea, or attempting to down an opponent, or simply excusing their own malefactions. Try and decide the likely truth behind the statement and see how it has been manipulated in order to deceive you. Then, if you are daring, do the same to your nearest and dearest. And, if you are truly heroic, do it to yourself. Happy Christmas.