As the Republican and Democratic conventions approach, some things are certain. We’ll hear a lot of soaring rhetoric and teeth-gnashing. We’ll see more pomp than a Kardashian Instagram feed. And we’ll be fed a steady stream of hyperbole, cherry-picked factoids, and outright lies. Mark Twain famously observed that politicians would never lie “unless it was absolutely convenient;” and the Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen told us, “Nobody speaks the truth when there is something they must have.” (Every politician, of course, must win his/her election for the sake of the country.)
Twain and Bowen are both implying that people apply a situational definition to honesty and integrity. True character, however, allows for no compromise on honesty. Trustworthiness is not something you can compartmentalize and turn on or off at will. You can’t be trustworthy in some aspects of your life but not in others. We are either trustworthy or we’re not. We’re either a rock or a pile of shifting sand. People either know they can count on us or we are doomed to disappoint them. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition.
A basic tenet of Hinduism says, “If you speak the truth long enough, your word becomes universal law.” Every time you demonstrate trust, you strengthen and enhance the public recognition of your integrity. That in turn leads to the ultimate goal of transforming the concept of trust into a practical reality. In a very real sense, trust becomes you and you become trust.
Think long and hard and try to remember the last politician who exuded trust as a core attribute. They may say, “trust me,” but provide no basis for doing so. And it’s not just politicians. Trust and honesty are characteristics that elude most of us.
Several years ago a former colleague – let’s call her Kristen – was engaged in a compensation dispute with her boss, the CEO of the company. It was a classic he-said/she-said situation. Here’s the scenario in brief. The company was rolling out a new compensation program and when the CEO explained the specifics of her target amount, Kristen said it was insufficient and substantially lower than her peers. She suggested that she and the company part amicably rather than engage in a pissing contest. The CEO quickly agreed that Kristen’s package was lower than her colleagues and assured her that the discrepancy would be adjusted by a certain date. Just as they had done on previous occasions, they shook hands on the deal.
When the agreed-upon date arrived, the extra compensation did not arrive along with it. The CEO acknowledged his earlier assurances but stated it was now out of his hands. Kristen was justifiably upset. The additional compensation was being paid out to her colleagues and she was low girl on the totem pole. She offered to resign and not make a fuss as long as she was paid the amount she was due. The CEO warned that she was going down a slippery slope and said the discussion was over.
Kristen subsequently sued the company and endured a bitter legal battle. The company’s other employees were forced to take a position – either side with the company and ostracize their colleague, or side with Kristen and potentially face retribution from management. All of this position-taking, however, was done with no one knowing the facts of the matter. And because it was a legal matter, Kristen was unable to share any non-public information. Instead, she would simply make the same statement to anyone who inquired: “Only two people know the truth. One of us is lying. You decide who.” That statement usually engendered a smirk and a knowing nod. Kristen had spent her entire career building a reputation for integrity, frankness, and honest dealing. She felt confident that the vast majority of people would look at the two parties and be hard-pressed to identify any instance where Kristen had ever said or done anything that could remotely be construed as untoward or deceitful.
I share this story to ask if you would be confident in declaring that “One of us is lying” and leaving the determination to others. Even more importantly, as election season is about to go into high gear, can you identify a candidate who could confidently, and without a trace of irony, make that same declaration? Can you imagine a debate stage in September or October when the presidential and vice-presidential candidates might point at their opponent and state, “One of us is lying. You decide.” It won’t happen and it can’t happen, because lying has become the hallmark of American politics.
The best we could hope for would be a candidate to look straight into the camera and say this: “We’re both lying. It’s your job to decide which of us is lying less.” That’s how far our political debate has declined but, in the parlance of the day, it is what it is. So, in the absence of true integrity, the best we can do is weigh one candidate’s mendacity against the other’s perfidiousness – and may the least deceitful win.