Telling the truth can be problematic. We all know that.
I propose that we take a personal example and a political example in turn, and see what they show us about the importance of having respect for the truth -- in life and in politics.
First the personal example:
My two-year-old, Cole, looks up at me, his face smeared with chocolate. His eyes fierce.
I know what he wants. He wants another chocolate chip cookie, and dammit he shouldn't have had even the first one, because it is bedtime. And he's tired.
And now he is shouting for "'nother one," jumping up and down, pointing to the cupboard where he knows that, earlier in the day, we hid the tupperware containing the cookies meant for tomorrow's party.
Have you been there? Is this familiar? If so, then you may know what happens next.
I blurt out: "Cookies all gone!" It just comes out before I can check myself: "All gone!"
Cole glares at me silently for a moment. Then even louder than before: "'Nother cookie!"
"Cookies all gone!" I insist.
I meet his gaze, my eyes widening in that give-away, "Who me?" expression I always get when I'm bluffing. His eyes narrow into a suspicious squint.
And he gives up. He sinks to the floor, muttering about cookies. I scoop him up and head upstairs for pajamas, storytime, and bed.
But it sits wrong with me later. I lied to my child. I lied to Cole. He knew it. And he knew I knew it. It can never be made good, not ever... something is broken, lost.... (okay, I'm tired -- I get dramatic when I'm tired). I go to bed.
But in the cold light of day, I think it over. Outright lying is always wrong -- even trivial lies like that one.
It would be better, if I can handle it emotionally, to suffer the outburst, the tantrum, whatever the consequences. Pick him up and take him away from the kitchen. Do what I need to do. But don't lie.
Why do I say this? Because I believe that the most important thing that I can do as a parent, other than love my children, is to establish unquestioned honesty in my communication with them. Without this, I would quickly lose a sense of how to adjust to my children's changing needs. They would stop telling me what's on their minds, and our communication would be broken.
If I allowed the little lies, the little distortions, to build up into a kind of static in our communication, my children would gradually develop a more cavalier attitude towards my word. They would begin to assume that behind what I said is really only my authority and, worse, my concern for expediency.
Even if lying about the cookies worked in the short-term with Cole, it was the wrong way to go. I should have picked him up, kicking and screaming, and carried him upstairs.
So now I want to turn to a political example to show how we can get by without lies. It's hard to do, and we may as well turn to someone who has the motivation to lie all day long but the good heart that keeps him from doing it.
Barack Obama has many problems which trigger this same truth/expediency dilemma. Here's one of them:
Obama personally opposes discrimination of all kinds against gays and lesbians. Yet many people in the country have a prejudice against homosexuals, and they feel threatened at the prospect of gay marriage...
Obama knows that if he speaks out for full legal rights for gays and lesbians, which of course would include access to the institution of marriage with not only its privileges but also its symbolic value, he would instantly lose many potential voters. This is true in the Democratic primaries, but even more so in the general election.
So what does Obama do? He hedges.
How do I know this? I saw him do it.
On February 19 this year I went to hear Obama speak at a fundraising event in San Francisco. There were about 80 to 100 people there. He was asked about gay marriage (or "marriage equality" as I recall the questioner phrased it).
In that small setting, without ever saying so outright, Obama made it very clear that his decision not to support gay marriage was based on political expediency. In an attempt to get us to understand his predicament, he drew an analogy.
He mentioned that under the miscegenation laws which existed in the 1960s (before Loving v. Virginia in '67) his own mother and father could not have married in many states. And so he understood personally the importance of "marriage equality".
But then he drew the audience's attention to the work of Martin Luther King Jr. in the early 1960s -- those same years leading up to Loving v. Virginia -- on issues such as voting rights, employment discrimination and education. He told us that he had asked himself many times, if he had been in King's position in 1963, would he have "leaned" on the issue of miscegenation -- or would he have postponed it?
His answer of course was that he would have put it off -- even if it meant that his own parents' marriage would have remained illegal in many states.
This pragmatic argument -- coupled with a rueful mention of the mixing of the term "marriage" with religious traditions in many people's minds -- was the best he could offer. In effect he was saying, I can't do this now -- I can't even say anything more... We have to wait.
Strangely, his tone was so personal and thoughtful that, from what I saw, he won the crowd to his side -- at least in the moment.
It helped that he finished his answer with a direct look at the questioner and then a scan of the audience as a whole, saying very clearly, "I will continue to listen to my gay and lesbian friends on this." It almost felt as if he was winking at us in some solemn way (I can't say it, but I am with you!).
What impressed me about Obama's answer at the time was that he did not lie to us. Admittedly, he did not say outright what he hinted: that he personally opposed discrimination of all kinds, including marriage. But he didn't say that he was opposed to gay marriage either. He did a dance in which he managed to avoid lying while avoiding the truth.
As I said, he hedged.
This, I think, is the way to go as a parent (when you can't just tell the truth -- which remains the first and best option). It feels dodgy of course. When your kid looks you in the eye and demands "'nother cookie!" it is hard to worry about finessing the point. But finesse is exactly what you need.
If you say, "We're not going to have any more cookies!" in the melancholic tone of "All gone cookies!" for example, you have avoided lying.
You child may get confused. But he doesn't glare at you, knowing that you intentionally used words to express something untrue.
There is a difference, and the difference is a matter of respect.
That's why I am determined to avoid outright lying to my children on any point, however small.
I know that in the teenage years it's going to get a lot more difficult to trick my children with tone. The art of hedging will have to become increasingly advanced.
Perhaps I'll just have to face more temper tantrums...
But come to think of it, with a relationship based on telling the truth, perhaps, even when the truth hurts we will still be able to look each other in the eyes and resolve to disagree. We will have learned to have that kind of mutual respect.
(I'll have to get back to you on that one in about 10 years -- I can hear those of you with teenage children saying softly, "Good luck.")