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Leaders, lies and whataboutery.

Byline: Adeela Naureen

While glancing at declared assets of political head honchos of mainstream parties, one is perplexed, amazed and even disappointed. Why has blatant lying become our second nature, is it a reflection of our collective failure or a sorry state of the moral standards practiced by our leaders? What are the ramifications of rampant lying in any nation, and can we get out of this jinx affecting all political parties?

Sisella Bok, author of a major philosophical book on the subject of lying, defines a lie as: an intentionally deceptive message in the form of a statement .BBC's ethics guide states why lying is so damaging for a society. There are many reasons why people think lying is wrong; lying is bad because a generally truthful world is a good thing: lying diminishes trust between human beings: if people generally didn't tell the truth, life would become very difficult, as nobody could be trusted and nothing you heard or read could be trusted, you would have to find everything out for yourself, an untrusting world is also bad for liars.

John J. Mearsheimer's book, 'Why leaders lie, the Truth about Lying in International Politics', is an interesting treatise on the issue of political lying by statesmen and leaders. He argues that the leaders most likely to lie are precisely those in Western democracies, those whose traditions of democracy perversely push them to mislead the very public that elected them.

Quoting important incidents in past history, Mearsheimer states few examples, 'while building up the case of WMD against Iraq, Bush was following in the footsteps of illustrious predecessors like Franklin D. Roosevelt, who lied about a naval incident in 1941 to help draw the United States into World War II, and Lyndon B. Johnson, who lied about events in the Gulf of Tonkin in the summer of 1964 so that he could get congressional support to wage war against North Vietnam'.

'It is important to emphasize that in none of those cases were the president or his lieutenants lying for narrow personal gain, they thought that they were acting in the American national interest, which is not to say they acted wisely in every case'. Leaders sometimes think that they have a moral duty to lie to protect their country'.

Mearsheimer differentiates between aspect of lying in international relations and within a state. In contrast to the international system, the structure of a state is hierarchic, not anarchic. In a well-ordered state, there is a higher authority, the state itself, to which individuals can turn for protection. Consequently, the incentives to cheat and lie that apply when states are dealing with each other usually do not apply to individuals within a state. One can also make a moral case against lying within the confines of a state, because a well-defined community usually exists there, which is not the case in international politics'.

Broadly speaking, leaders tell international lies for two different reasons. They can tell lies in the service of the national interest ,or, leaders can also tell selfish lies, which have little to do with raison d'etat, but instead aim to protect their own personal interests or those of their friends.

Coming back to Pakistani politics and the issue of declaration of assets, one thing is certain that some leaders have used all forms of lying to conceal facts from public; these include outright denials, spinning, deception, white lies and subterfuge. Unfortunately Pakistani laws and monitoring mechanisms have so many loopholes that political leaders can easily get away through the use of legal twisting and hiding behind the facade of deceit and white collar crimes. White collar crimes in political hierarchy have assumed many faces and forms, these include embezzlement, money laundering, forgery, frauds, kickbacks, Ponzi schemes, bribery, use of front men and financial cronyism.

Unfortunately the lying by political leaders has now become a sophisticated art supported by information operations conducted through campaigns on print, electronic and social media. Media is used for driving the agendas through three major strategies, spinning, concealment and strategic cover-ups. Mearsheimer says that Spinning is when a person telling a story emphasizes certain facts and links them together in ways that play to his advantage, while, at the same time, downplaying or ignoring inconvenient facts. With spinning, no attempt is made to render a completely accurate account of events. Concealment involves withholding information that might undermine or weaken one's position. In cases of this sort, the individual simply remains silent about the evidence, because he wants to hide it from others. Strategic cover-ups are lies designed to hide either failed policies or controversial policies from the public .

Pakistani elite and political leadership has been exposed in recent pre-election declaration of assets, and even my village buffalo is astonished. Social media castigated these deceptive lies with remarks such as, 'Instead of buying a KFC burger, I would rather buy a 500 yards plot in Jati Umra or Bilawal House'. Similarly the white color crime by some members of the political elite is covered under layers of 'benami' investments in overseas tax heavens like Panama and British Virgin Islands etc.

Another trend in debate on rampant corruption in Pakistani elite is Whataboutery. Whataboutery is quite universal and even prevalent in Trump's America. National Public Radio and Christian Science Monitor have criticized Trump by stating that President Trump has been accused of whataboutery in response to criticism leveled at him, his policies, or his support of controversial world leaders. President Trump has developed a consistent tactic when he's criticized: by stating that someone else is worse.

Whataboutery has also affected political debate in Pakistan, the moment leadership is confronted with tough questions related to their personal conduct or financial assets, one finds whataboutery as a response, we frequently listen to arguments such as, 'Why don't you look at so and so leader of that political party, he is also having assets in tax heavens oversees'.

Although the two issues of lying and whataboutery will not be addressed in coming elections, I feel that it's our collective responsibility to discuss and debate these ethical issues through all forms of media and develop legal and moral firewalls in our democratic system to minimize the pitfalls of these diseases. After all democracy is not about vote count only, it enshrines higher principles of morality, transparency, accountability and ethics.
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Publication:The Nation (Karachi, Pakistan)
Date:Jul 8, 2018
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