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Skillful Lying

There’s an old joke which says: “Question: How can you tell when a politician is lying? Answer: His lips are moving.” It’s not literally true, of course, because politicians also lie in printed material (where their lips aren’t moving). But seriously, it has become a bigger problem recently because skillful lying is now a sophisticated and effective technique for gaining and maintaining power.

In many cases the lie (or error, or inaccuracy, or deliberate or accidental deception) isn’t particularly well hidden. I hate to belabour the obvious, but Donald Trump is probably the most well known source of statements which simply aren’t true, and even occasionally contradict earlier statements by himself! In a recent discussion by American comedian/commentator, Bill Maher, the explanation offered was that he makes so many incorrect statements that no one takes any notice any more.

The fact that someone whose accuracy is (deliberately or through ignorance) so poor is doing so well is a sad indictment on American politics. Or maybe the fact that he increasingly seems to be a serious challenger to Hillary Clinton for president is a sad indictment on her (assuming she wins the Democratic nomination, because although I think she will I don’t think she should).

So Trump is the most obvious liar because he says things which are simply untrue, but Clinton in some ways is worse. I really cannot take anything she says seriously because she just emanates such an air of inauthenticity that I really can’t stand to listen to her. It’s like every word doesn’t come from her but from some spin doctor who has contrived words intended to evoke the greatest positive response from the voters.

I presume all American politicians (including my preferred presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders) have advisors recommending what they should say and how they should say it, but the lack of legitimacy on Clinton’s part seems, to me, to be beyond anyone else.

And while I’m on this subject, I think the concept of “skillful lying” also explains the success of the current New Zealand government. As I have said in the past, even I was initially, if not enthusiastic then at least fairly accepting, of the current center-right administration, even though they didn’t really do anything I fully supported.

Maybe I was initially deceived by the superb spin machine that the National Party seems to have at its disposal. As I have looked at the situation more carefully I have realised that they have employed masterly deception, deflection, and diversion to cover any deficiencies in their actual actions.

And since I became aware of these techniques I have seen them used in many places. One of our prime minister’s favourite tricks is to turn a challenge which he cannot answer into a joke. When he makes a humorous response to a serious question and the person opposing him tries to bring him back to the serious matter it just makes his opponent look boring and humourless. It’s a brilliant strategy and many people are beguiled by this clever strategy to the point that they forget that he never answered the original question.

Another popular habit of successful public figures is offering their opinion on subjects they know nothing about. Again, Trump is a champion at this and our PM is developing an expertise too. He recently offered an opinion on the unfortunate demise of Harambe, the gorilla. Of course, why shouldn’t he, because almost everyone else did too!

A more politically relevant subject where the PM made a misleading statement related to “cheap” (which actually aren’t very cheap) housing in New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland. The PM claimed there were many houses for sale below $500 thousand if anyone “Googled” New Zealand’s major trading site, TradeMe. But a simple search reveals this simply isn’t true. There are very few houses in that category and, of the few which do exist, most are either tiny, long distances out of town, on islands, or (in one case) actually a boat 2 hours away from the CBD.

But that illustrates one further point: that fact checking in live interviews is almost impossible. An interviewer can’t challenge a statement which seems fake until they research it, and in the fast paced political world we live in by then it’s too late.

Politicians no doubt know all of this and they also know that, as Abe Lincoln said: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” But, of course, you don’t need to.

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