Over a century ago, Winston Churchill cleverly used the deliberately circumlocutory phrase “terminological inexactitude” both to get around the prohibition against accusing someone of being a liar in the House of Commons and to draw attention to the fact that he was doing precisely that. Remarkably, the convention has survived, although MPs today seem more willing to breach it and face the consequences, as the SNP’s Ian Blackford and Labour’s Dawn Butler and Lloyd Russell-Moyle have done recently.
Many of us have understandably cheered those calling a spade a spade. Boris Johnson’s flagrant disregard for truth-telling makes hearing speaker of the house Lindsay Hoyle telling Blackford he must insert the word “inadvertently” before “misled the House” less like an insistence on civility and more like a dereliction of democratic duty.
However, there remain good reasons why we should err on the side of caution when throwing around accusations of lying. A greater willingness to do so is not so much a sign of more honesty as of increasingly blinkered partisanship. The gloves have come off and instead of giving our opponents the benefit of the doubt, we rush to judge them as harshly as possible.
The difference between a lie and an untruth is simple. A lie is not just an untrue statement but one that is made knowing it is untrue, with the intention of deceiving others, often by covering up wrongdoings.
We should hesitate to call someone a liar because we are not privy to other people’s motives or states of mind. That a statement is untrue can usually be established beyond reasonable doubt; that the person who said it knew it was untrue is harder to establish. Although there can be smoking guns in the form of clear evidence that they knew the truth all along, more often their feeling that someone is lying is no more than a strong hunch. Everyone deserves a presumption of innocence and so whenever we make serious accusations against someone we should be very confident it is warranted. This is a simple matter of justice.
Being too quick to call “liar” has three other major drawbacks. The first is a classic legal mistake: pursue someone for a contestable greater charge and you may end up letting them off an uncontestable weaker one. Take the popular “Bliar” trope, the idea that Tony Blair lied about the existence of WMD in Iraq. Although there is now overwhelming evidence that the claim was false, there has never been any strong evidence that Blair knew it was false, despite more than one detailed inquiry. All the time the main charge against him was lying, Blair could therefore easily plead innocence. But what if instead the focus had been on incompetence, making decisions based on insufficient evidence, not being sufficiently questioning or collegiate in decision-making? Opponents of the Iraq War can score many damning points against Blair on all of these, but when they focus instead on lying, they miss their mark.
A deeper problem with being too quick to call someone a liar is that it feeds into a wider willingness to second-guess people’s malevolent intentions. It seems that people are becoming unwilling to accept that those they disagree with are just mistaken, and instead attribute to them nefarious intentions. People who question whether trans people should always be treated the same as those whose sex at birth and gender identity align are not just called wrong, but hateful. Remainers are not just mistaken but unpatriotic. Brexiteers were not merely naive to believe leaving the EU would make the country better off, they knew it wouldn’t all along. People who use the wrong language with regards to race are not just uninformed but bigoted. When this becomes a pattern, we see the thickening and heightening of the walls between people. Disagreement becomes more passionate, less understandable, more Manichean.
When we egregiously up the charge sheet against people we disagree with, we also lose the vocabulary to distinguish exceptional wrongdoing from ordinary errors and minor misbehaviours. Just as the word “fascist” loses its power when left-wingers accuse everyone to the right of Michael Heseltine of being one, so the charge of “liar” loses its force when everyone who is wrong is labelled a deceiver.
For example, in February the Lord Chancellor Dominic Raab wrote in the Times that the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) risked “leading its members into an unnecessary and irresponsible strike against a process the government is duty-bound to follow.” The CBA retorted in a tweet, “We have not asked the government to infringe any public law principles. This is a lie.” For a sober organisation like the CBA to level this charge against a government minister would once have been dynamite. But in a climate in which accusations of lying are two-a-penny, it was barely newsworthy. As a result, Raab got away with his dishonesty.
Just this week, the UN Secretary General António Guterres called out world leaders on their climate change inaction, saying: “Some government and business leaders are saying one thing—but doing another. Simply put, they are lying.” Guterres, like the CBA and MPs who have pointed out the prime minister’s dishonesty, was right to use such strong language, but the word has been weakened through its overuse by others.
As philosopher Alessandra Tanesini has argued, calls for civility in public discourse can risk becoming ways of stifling dissent and denying people the right to express justified outrage. But the case against overuse of epithets like “liar” is not based on upholding norms of politeness. Rather, it is a principled argument against attributing guilt without evidence and a practical call to make sure than when we do need to say clearly, plainly, even angrily that someone has lied, that accusation has all the power, force and serious that it should. That may be mistaken, but it ain’t no lie.
The post The philosophical reason you shouldn’t call people liars appeared first on Prospect Magazine.