Being Honest & Disagreeing with Facts
An Either–Or Proposition
On Monday, January 23rd, Sean Spicer, President Trump’s newly minted Press Secretary, made the following statement during an official press conference: “I believe we have to be honest with the American people. I think sometimes we can disagree with the facts.”
The context was Mr. Spicer’s previous press engagement, where, during a rather bizarre spectacle on Saturday, he berated the press for its coverage of Trump’s inauguration on Friday. Among several other blatant lies, he insisted that the audience was the largest to ever witness a US presidential inauguration (it wasn’t…not even close) and that the Secret Service’s use of metal detectors kept some people off the Mall (no metal detectors were used).
So we’re at a point where Mr. Spicer has said both (a) he has to be honest and (b) he can disagree with facts. Clearly, both of those statements cannot be true, at least not simultaneously.
A fact is, literally by definition, the objective truth.
A fact is a piece of shared reality, something objectively true for everyone involved in the discussion.
To be honest requires acknowledging the relevant facts.
Two people, let alone a government and the governed, cannot have a meaningful exchange when one of the parties refuses to accept facts and, instead, substitutes propaganda.
This is not a new revelation or some tricky rule we are just now imposing on sincere discussion. As US President John Adams famously said: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
It seems we are facing the prospect of an administration that will knowingly send out its Press Secretary to lie to the media, repeatedly and on multiple occasions about the same issue, by disregarding the objective facts and substituting new “alternative facts” that better suit the administration’s goals.
This is inconsistent with the fundamental principles of the United States. The nation’s founders believed, deeply, that those empowered to act as our government must be sincere, transparent, and subservient to the people. Some quotes illustrate their convictions:
“The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest.”— Thomas Jefferson, 1775
“Tis substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule indeed extends with more or less force to every species of free Government.” — George Washington, 1796
“Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right … to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean, of the character and conduct of their rulers.” — John Adams, 1765
“A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” — James Madison, 1822
“A government ought to contain in itself every power requisite to the full accomplishment of the objects committed to its care, and to the complete execution of the trusts for which it is responsible, free from every other control but a regard to the public good and to the sense of the people.” — Alexander Hamilton, 1788
“It is of great importance to set a resolution, not to be shaken, never to tell an untruth. There is no vice so mean, so pitiful, so contemptible; and he who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and a third time, till at length it becomes habitual…” — Thomas Jefferson, 1785
Ultimately, we must not permit this reliance upon semi-truths and outright falsehoods to become established as normative behavior, in this administration or any other. If we cannot trust our government to be reliably honest with us, we cannot trust it will reliably act in our best interests. That leads at best to corruption and at worst to tyranny, and steps toward either of those ends should be rejected as immediately, as clearly, and as forcefully as we, the people, can manage.