Dishonesty is the theme of the hour after Tony Abbott’s admission that he tells defensive lies when under pressure, and the sensationalist revelations of NSW minister David Campbell’s double life. It’s hardly news that politicians are less than honest, but fibs come in many different flavours and some are more palatable to us than others. In what circumstances is dishonesty forgiveable?
Of the Campbell scandal, Kristina Keneally said: “It is appalling that he lived a lie, and it is appalling that he lives in a society [in which] he feels he has to live a lie.” Miranda Devine leapt first to Tony Abbott’s defence, and later (less characteristically) to Campbell’s, arguing in each case that their untruths were forgivable given the extraordinary circumstances they found themselves in.
Commentators have been quick to draw attention to the fact that Abbott’s early popularity was attributed to his reputation as a ‘straight talker’, compared to mealy-mouthed and evasive Kevin whose smokescreen of verbiage allowed him to dodge difficult questions. But is evasion and circumlocution really the same as dishonesty?
For philosopher Harry G Frankfurt, political spin and waffle is not so much dishonesty as ‘bullshit’, a concept he situates outside any true/false dichotomy. In his popular 1986 essay On Bullshit, revised and reprinted as a small book in 2005, the octogenarian professor tells us that liars and truth-tellers are simply playing “on opposite sides … in the same game”, while the bullshitter redefines the game altogether. Frankfurt explains that while lying is “designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth”, bullshitters have a much broader agenda. Genuine bullshit artists are indifferent to the truth and are therefore not constrained by any true/false equation. If they are sometimes accidentally true it makes no difference to their goal which is to muddy the context for their own advantage. As Frankfurt puts it: “The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise.”
Published in the same year, Laura Penny’s Your call is important to us: the truth about bullshit takes a similar view. In her estimation bullshit comes in two types: Expert or Moron. “Expert,” she explains, “is the lengthy contract you sign to get a loan or mortgage from a bank, and Moron is the brightly coloured brochure that encouraged you to bank at the First National House of Usury in the first place.” Both varieties have the effect of aggrandising or amplifying the facts for undeclared purposes. Like Frankfurt she takes great pains to explain that bullshitting is not the same as lying. Of advertising she writes: “Ads present something tangential to the truth — something more interesting or enjoyable or photogenic or sentimental than the truth.”
Penny’s explanation is particularly relevant to political advertising, and Abbott’s recent effort provides a neat illustration. That the majority of asylum seekers arrive on our shores from China and Zimbabwe by aeroplane is not outright contradicted in Abbott’s ‘real action’ scenario which simply represents a state of affairs that is both tangential to the truth and more interesting than it.