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‘You lie!’

On this April Fools’ Day, I have been thinking about people lying, and accusing other people of lying, and human folly in general. There are all sorts of lies: white lies, prevarications, fibs, half-truths, exaggerations, and other kinds of deceptions. There are also simple falsehoods that have nothing to do with anyone telling any lies. But I often hear people accusing other people of lying, especially in political discussions. But are they really lying? All of them? Not only on April Fools’ Day, but all year-round? Really? No, not really.

I think that there is a big difference between lying and saying something that is false. There are many reasons why people may be mistaken about what they say. We are bombarded with numerous facts and figures every day. It is way too easy to be mistaken about the facts—‘Was it a 30 million or 30 billion that I heard them say on the radio?’ I personally follow a strict rule in these situations. I do not argue about the facts in policy discussions. If I really need the exact numbers, I look them up in a reputable source although sometimes it is difficult to determine whether or not a given source is reputable. But in policy discussions, numbers are less important than many people might think. Policy discussions are about what we should do about something regardless of how big or how small a concern or a problem may be. For example, if there are 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States, the number itself does not tell us what we should do about it. Some people may be appalled by the number and want to change things right away. Others may think that 12 million of illegal immigrants are only a miniscule part of our society and that we should concentrate on dealing with issues of greater significance to a larger part of population.

We hear people accuse other people of lying about many other things than facts. This is prevalent in policy discussions as well. I think if we were more civil and listened to other people more carefully, and more sympathetically, we might not be so quick to call them liars. In many cases we simply do not understand what other people are saying. In many cases, a speaker may not be clear in his or her own mind about what he or she thinks or is trying to say about an issue, and is inarticulate about it and does not say what he or she means. And in many other cases we simply disagree—fundamentally, and often without recognizing it—with their basic concerns, beliefs, values, interests, and goals. Having different beliefs and different values can, even with the best reasoning, lead to very different interpretations of what the facts are, and what they mean, and what the ‘obvious’ or ‘best’ policy or approach toward them might be. A listener’s head is often so filled with preconceived notions and prejudices (which are very difficult to recognize, and even more difficult to acknowledge) that no new idea or different way of looking at an issue has any chance of entering it.

All of this frequently occurs without anyone lying about anything. And it is difficult to sort it all out when it does. But saying ‘You lie!’ is fundamentally different, and doesn’t help the discussion at all. To call a person a liar is to accuse a person of malicious intent. I also feel that is fundamentally dishonest: first, because it shifts the discussion from ideas and arguments about an issue to ad hominem attacks on people and their personalities; and second, because I think that it is virtually impossible to look inside other people’s minds and see their intentions.

Part of the Interactivity Foundation’s mission is to promote civil discussion about public policy possibilities. So I am writing this perspective to urge people not to be so foolish as to jump to the conclusion—‘You lie!’—and try to understand different perspectives instead.

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