Tuesday 22 October 2019

Public figures and lies 

This column first appeared in Malta Today

“It is just a fact that people lie.  If you grow up in a society in which this is a fact, it’s important that one learns to lie and understand lying. If not you are fully vulnerable to those who lie.” 

This is an excerpt from an interesting documentary called The Truth About Lying produced by ARTE (with English subtitles) which chronicles studies by German, French and Spanish researchers into the concept of lying, to explain whether it is an innate or cultural phenomenon. To better understand this behaviour, studies were also carried out on animals. Interestingly, although we have a lot in common with monkeys, it was found that it is our similarity with pigs when it comes to deception which is the most striking.  

In this documentary, the classic examples of Lance Armstrong and Bill Clinton were given, as well as that of French Minister Jérôme Cahuzac. The interesting thing about these three men was how long they attempted to avert being exposed by repeatedly denying the charges against them. 

Professional cyclist Lance Armstrong won seven Tour de France titles despite having battled testicular cancer and brain tumours, undergoing surgery and countless rounds of chemotherapy.  When Irish sportswriter David Walsh became suspicious of the cycling champion’s feats, he investigated rumours of drug use and published a story, which was then bolstered by the admission of drug use by a fellow cyclist Floyd Landis, who then accused Armstrong of doing the same.  Despite a federal investigation and solid evidence backed by witness testimony, Armstrong continued to vehemently deny the charges, each and every time he was interviewed.  In 2012 the U.S Anti-Doping Agency announced that it was stripping him of all his medals but it was only in January 2013, during the famous interview with Oprah, that he finally admitted that he had lied all along.   Lance stated that he took illegal drugs as a professional athlete due to a “ruthless desire to win”.

And yet, when one views the footage of Armstrong’s many denials, he sounds plausible, unflappable and self-assured, while attempting  to turn the tables on his accusers that they “did not believe in miracles”.  However, as the above researchers showed, while averting eye contact is a common trait in liars, those who are more pathological tend to stare fixedly at their interviewer – almost uncomfortably so.  

The notorious Monica Lewinsky case, in which the White House intern almost brought down the Clinton presidency because of their illicit affair, has become the stuff of legend. What people will remember most is a haggard-looking Clinton during the 1998 press conference uttering the famous words: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”.  Previously, he had also denied the affair during his sworn deposition.

As events eventually proved, of course, it turned out that they had indeed been sexually involved, and while the sex scandal caused a furore, it was the fact that the President had lied to the American people which really caused the greatest outrage.  As the Grand Jury investigation unfolded, the evidence became more irrefutable. Eight months later, Clinton was forced to go back in front of the cameras to address the nation and admit that he had had an “inappropriate relationship”.  

Clinton’s inability to withstand the pressure of his own lie could be seen in his first press conference – everything about his tense demeanour, the way he jabbed his finger towards the camera and his attempt to distance himself from Lewinsky by referring to her as “that woman” were all telltale signs.  When he finally told the truth, although he still looked tired, the relief of no longer having to carry the burden of his lie could be visibly seen in his face and his calm delivery.    

This brings us to Jérôme Cahuzac. As reported in The Guardian in 2013, “Cahuzac’s sudden admission that he hid €600,000 offshore for more than two decades is the biggest scandal to hit Hollande’s presidency. The public admission by the man who led France’s fight against tax evasion that he secretly defrauded the taxman and was “caught in a spiral of lies” is a huge embarrassment for Hollande, who promised that his government would be beyond reproach after the corruption allegations that dogged previous French administrations.”   

For four months, Cahuzac continued to deny the allegations, swearing before Parliament that the story was not true and appearing on TV and radio to refute the claims. It was only when an inquiry was announced that he finally confessed the truth. The furious public reaction was as much about his lies as it was about his hypocrisy.  Analysing the video footage, a body language specialist pointed to the rigid non-verbal signs, such as his jutting chin, and his almost confrontational speech. In fact, there are usually a cluster of such signals which point to when someone is lying. 

Also included in the documentary was the ‘frontrunner’ of liars, the current US President Donald Trump who is described as “an exceptional lying machine”. In case you weren’t keeping track, The Washington Post has, and it has tallied over 8000 lies by Trump since he took office. 

Unfortunately for voters, he is in good company since it was pointed out (not surprisingly) that lying comes easily to politicians.  One psychologist from the University of Granada explained that, “the more power a person has, the easier they find it to lie”. True to the advice given by Machiavelli to the Prince, many have found that if they hide part of the truth they are more likely to retain hold of their power and succeed.  Withholding information is, the documentary says, “the alternative lie” but it can also lead to unpredictable consequences especially in times of crisis and when the populace is suffering under economic strife.  

By this point, you will have got my drift.

Although we are an island, no country is really an island any more because patterns and trends of how public figures behave can be traced with almost depressing predictability.  Whether for personal gain such as the single-minded determination of Lance Armstrong to win medals at all costs, monetary gain by politicians such as Cahuzac who have squirrelled their money away in tax havens, or the attempt of a powerful man to fulfil some middle-aged lustful fantasy like Bill Clinton, the signs of a habitual liar are quite similar.  We have our own list of fraudsters, politicians who are tax evaders and others whose dubious private behaviour has placed the office they hold into disrepute. The similarity stops when it comes to the repercussions, because in most local cases, once the fuss has died down, many simply shrug nonchalantly (“u iva”) and it becomes yesterday’s news.  

Cheating, lying and deception are all around us, and it takes a lot of moral fibre to avoid falling into the same trap “because that is how things are done”.   The biggest challenge facing all of us at almost every turn is whether we should simply go with the flow: after all, if the ones at the top have lied to us and are not to be trusted why should we be naive enough to follow the straight and narrow path?  It is probably the biggest tragedy of our time, that instead of having leaders whom we look up to and aspire to be like because they take the moral high ground, in many parts of the world, voters have come to be disillusioned by their leaders whom they regard with sheer disdain.  They have become objects of ridicule, mockery and satire and rather than inspire us, they make us shrink away in disbelief that these are the people running our respective countries.   

It is also not an easy time for parents and teaches who are striving to instil the importance of honesty, kindness and integrity in their children and students – values which used to be something to emulate but which unfortunately, all too often, are being replaced by the “values” of getting rich quick, even if it means stomping on those who are less fortunate.  

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