“Must Truth be a Casualty of Politics? Lies, Misrepresentations, Omissions and Illusions”

(CRT Principle for Government #1)


Chair and Facilitator: Stephen B. Young, Global Executive Director, Caux Round Table

Given growing concern for elite failure in global governance — political, corporate, finance, higher education, etc. — the Caux Round Table (CRT) proposed a series of round tables to discuss its ethical Principles for Government. The premise of the CRT effort is that good principles which appropriately reflect stable foundations of human nature can be used to avoid failures of governance.

Photo by Doug Mills/The New York Times.

The round table on February 28th was held on the morning before President Trump addressed the Congress. Tabled for discussion was CRT Principle №2 on the ethics of discourse which principle sets the following standard:

The Civic Order shall serve all those who accept the responsibilities of citizenship Public power constitutes a civic order for the safety and common good of its members. The civic order, as a moral order, protects and promotes the integrity, dignity and self-respect of its members in their capacity as citizens and, therefore, avoid all measures, oppressive and other, whose tendency is to transform the citizen into a subject. The state shall protect, give legitimacy to or restore all those principles and institutions which sustain the moral integrity, self-respect and civic identity of the individual citizen and which also serve to inhibit processes of civic estrangement, dissolution of the civic bond and civic disaggregation. This effort by the civic order itself protects the citizen’s capacity to contribute to the well-being of the civic order.

Since the November 8th, 2016 election of Donald Trump, notable, acrimonious and sustained public debates have broken out on the content of acceptable discourse, raising concerns about “fake news,” “alternative facts,” tweets, “lies,” hyperbole, presented to the public by those in politics, the media, entertainment and opinion management.

The context of discourse was put as trust. Trust was assumed to be a good outcome supporting good governance. But is truth necessary for trust or does trust allow for reasonable doubt over the terms under discussion? Where obedience is the only alternative, trust does not seem to be relevant. Trust, then, is relevant to open, self-organizing, systems of power.

But democracy (and institutions dedicated to the life of the mind, such as universities) should be open; there is a need to question convention and authority. Thus, discourse should permit some degree of “messiness” or “tumult.”

Where there are silos within the community, there is little foundation for trust at the level of community. Such a community is in the process of decomposition, as each silo becomes a fully autonomous community in, of and for itself, isolating it from the other silos and less and less mutually engaged with the other silos for its survival and sense of well-being.

Another danger lies hidden in the meaning of words: what if words have no reliable meaning, if they are only instruments available for unrestrained manipulation in the mouths of speakers and the hands of writers? Words as abstractions can be easily misused or, given their fluidity, can lead to partial understandings.

Andris, Lee, Hamilton, Martino, Gunning, and Selden, “The Rise of Partisanship and Super-Cooperators in the U.S. House of Representatives.”

When words have no center of gravity, truth more easily tracks personal experience. Because of the strong link between a person and his or her understanding of truth, believers do not easily change their mind as a result of debate and discussion. Those who share the same conditions and experiences, who see with the same eyes, stand together in alienation from others who see differently.

People now pursue their own truths as a tactic to protect their self-images.

The discourse which may clear the air of suspicion and mistrust should mimic the dynamics of counseling, where the facilitator probes for expression of feelings, not assertions of right and wrong.

Constructive discourse can also focus on actions steps — how do we move forward, what cooperation will be required? This approach opens possibilities for negotiations among possible participants to joint efforts.

It was noted that scale has a role to play, as well. Local scale fosters face-to-face relationships.

Loss of small scale settings creates loss of touch among people and so precipitates alienation in the culture and society.

Size and scale are hindrances to good government. As scale grows, so does regulation which can become a dead weight on ethically motivated, individual decision-making. Behaviors come from feelings which are shaped by perceptions which result from filtering imposed by assumptions.

So personal “truths” acting as assumptions do shape perceptions and feelings.

Words are often metaphors, descriptors, which shape identity politics. Not facts, per se, but representations of states of mind which stand in for truth as a feeling of “rightness.”

Notably, the metrics and measurements of certain professions — engineering, accounting, finance, science, etc. — provide standards and structures for truth. Measurements counter the tendency of words to act as metaphors only.

Democracy presumes that all seek the best outcome for all but this is not always true — selfishness challenges the presumption that a common good has psycho-social power over the motivations of individuals. The conversation raised a doubt that discourse, no matter how well intentioned or of excellent quality, may not provide a sufficiently compelling centrifugal congealant for democracy.

It was noted that democracy needs to follow a mean — a balance among contending forces, perceptions and emotions. Checks and balances, as a system, sustain cooperation and the common good. Heterogeneity, not homogeneity enforced by command or imposed ideologies, may be more compatible for ethical government.

But another outcome of trust is predictability, the generation of confidence in the future to encourage action and commitment.

But consideration of trust links analysis to stewardship, the ability to rely on the beneficial conduct of others.

Trust is more than a matter of words only; it must be earned through behaviors. It is a matter of personal prestige more than position assignment. One is reminded of the personal dynamics of the Roman Republic — those who developed auctoritas, gravitas, dignitas — were given termlimited positions of public trust.

At the country level, the system goal should be increasing the well-being of people. The goal demands creation of new wealth over time. Decentralization of markets is the most effective economic system.

As motivation for constructive actions was put into focus, incentives as a system of social rewards and law were noted. Culture was proposed as the machine for setting incentives systemically for groups. Culture, then, presumes ethics, moral codes and commitments to doing what is “right.”

A strong culture permits maintenance of a system which can survive even when “bad” people run its political system. Belief systems produce social results.

This raised a cautionary note about the open system of markets — capitalism seems to respond to increasing scale, tending always to concentrations of economic power. Democracy may encourage capitalism but is it certain that capitalism will inculcate good democracy?

Another challenge to discourse is media as emotional entertainment. Constant repetition of stories with emotional appeal has the effect of experiencing the story as new, again and again.

Chicago Booth Review; Credit: Michael Byers

The story does not become stale, boring or forgettable but sustains its power to excite and stir up the passions which drive politics and condition personal identities.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.