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Improving the truth

What goes unsaid by politicians is more important than the words themselves

How often do you find yourself wondering what the words of politicians really mean? What goes unsaid behind the grandstanding and posturing?

"We are a business-friendly government"

- We offer large tax breaks to corporations to create jobs

"We will consolidate departments to generate efficiencies"

- Expect layoffs and cutbacks in your future

"We are a lucky nation rich in resources"

- We dig big holes in the ground and sell the resources

What are the potential implications of the words?

Reading between the lines is important when words can so easily be spun in a multitude of different ways. Doublespeak from politicians is so common that frankly, I don't believe what I hear until I see action. Actions will always speak louder than words. That should go without saying.

A direct lie is easy to handle. It gets found out. If someone says they have done something and they haven't, you will typically know. It is the lies of omission that are the hardest. A lie of omission can occur when someone does not tell the full truth or uses parts of the story to misdirect. We have all done it - "hey Mum I found your car keys". PS: I had a great time driving your around last night". Or something like that. You get the gist. Unfortunately, not all lies of omission are harmless. Pointing to mental health issues and the need for armed security to solve gun violence in the USA, while carefully ignoring how easy it is to a gun in the first place, is a classic example of this.

Two people discussing how politicians lie

Words are often meaningless without specifics

Many of the words politicians speak are simply said to please and have little actual meaning. Specificity is critical as it tells the listener what is actually going on, and is easy to interpret. I recognise the importance of catchphrases but they do not adequately describe a political position and should not be the basis of voting. Take for example an excerpt from Trump's 2020 State of the Union:

"Our agenda is relentlessly pro-worker, pro-family, pro-growth, and, most importantly, pro- American."

Of course, this sounds good on paper. It is designed to. But it is meaningless. Being pro-family could mean banning contraceptives or making it illegal to skip church on Sundays. Hearing something you like is not the same as getting what you want. Of course, many politicians besides Trump say this sort of thing. If something sounds positive without specifics, one way to test it is to ask what else could have been said, and consider the different possible meanings for the words. Another way is to consider whether or not you can reasonably disagree with the words.

Why do politicians lie? I doubt it is as blatant as that. Trump is an exception. The different potential meanings behind words allow politicians to muddy the waters and mislead. I am not saying that this is always planned or done with ill intent. Politicians are people too. They don't have all the answers to questions and may use broad language to cover up what they don't know. Specifics may also be missing because of the audience that is listening. For instance, it is necessary to go into more detail when talking with economists about tax policy than it is for a broader audience. My point is that it is important to watch out for the actual meaning of the words.

Political speeches omit specifics to be agreeable

Let's look at another example from Boris Johnson's Brexit speech on 31 January 2020:

"This is the moment when we really begin to unite and level up

Defeating crime, transforming our NHS, and with better education, with superb technology And with the biggest revival of our infrastructure since the Victorians

We will spread hope and opportunity to every part of the UK"

There is nothing wrong with what is being said here. But of course there is nothing a reasonable person can disagree with either. Who doesn't want to defeat crime? Who doesn't want better education? You can't help but nod your head and agree. There is no mention of trade-offs - the "biggest revival of our infrastructure since the Victorians" will require money, where is it going to come from? New tax? Reduced spending elsewhere? There is always a trade-off.

The words lack substance because we don't know what is actually being done. If "better education" means hiring more teachers to teach kids how to paint their toenails, instead of spending time on mathematics, would you still agree? Most of you wouldn't, but then again, I designed that question so you would say no, which illustrates the point. Johnson is just telling you what you want to hear which is a signal to challenge what is being said.

Hold leaders to a high standard of truthfulness

Don't stop investigating just because you hear the right thing. Challenge the words. Make sure that the words mean something. Make sure they mean what you think they mean. When the words are put into action, make sure the results of that action match what was intended. Hold leaders to a high standard and make sure they jump to reach it.

The amount of bullshit the public has to put up with challenges the functioning of democracy. Bullshit travels quickly with the media available and our 24/7 connectedness. Election rigging, gaslighting, the vastness of information available, and our own online echo chambers can make it hard to see the truth. Luckily there has never been a better time to fight back with the ability to record information and fact check. Misleading politicians should become a thing of the past - but it is the voting public that has to make that happen.


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