30 June 2016
ON TRUTH MANIPULATION AND BREXIT
When I was musing about the outcome of Brexit (a political decision that may well affect me personally, just as much as it will affect so many other Europeans who live and work in the currently not-so United Kingdom), I could not help but think about the manipulation of truth that is so prevalent in politics. As educators, we are trying to teach our boys and girls to be truthful, to listen to the other side in an argument, to be conciliatory, to take a balanced view on the world.
And yet there are professions where manipulating the truth is not only accepted practice, but almost an inherent part of the job description. Orators and debaters want to sweep their audiences away with their rhetorical brilliance; journalists want to impress their readers with the courage of their conviction; lawyers want to win their cases; politicians want to triumph in elections. If all these people lived the values that we are trying to instil in our young, they might well not be successful in their chosen careers. They will all manipulate the truth to a certain degree, although it will depend on the ethical boundaries they set themselves how far they are prepared to go.
According to Aristotle, as an advocate “you must render the audience well-disposed to yourself, and ill-disposed to your opponent; you must exaggerate [your own case] and devalue [the case of the opponent].” His teacher Plato had phrased it even more directly: “A skilful orator has no need for truth.” He proceeded saying that all that mattered was winning the case.
I remember how a journalist in my home town, in his endeavour to tear apart the production of a director he did not like, wrote a damning theatre review in our local newspaper that ended with words to the effect: “Despite all these obvious weaknesses and flaws, surprisingly there were no ‘boos.’“ The truth was that the audience, in stark contrast to the biased review, had responded enthusiastically to the performance, erupting into rapturous applause, rewarding director and actors with standing ovations and shouting ‘bravo’. The journalist had not lied, but he had clearly manipulated the truth.
Such manipulation is particularly prevalent in politics. One strategy that is frequently being used is that of being selective with the truth. A campaign is usually strengthened if supported by a highly respected authority figure. And who could be more suited to this role in Britain than Winston Churchill? Not only has he strongly united Britain in one of the darkest periods of European history, but he is also dead and unable to defend himself against being manipulated. UKIP’s Nigel Farage therefore had no qualms about quoting his famous saying: “If Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea” in favour of the Leave campaign.
If ever a sentence has been taken out of context, this must be a prime example. Churchill uttered these words during an emotional argument with Charles de Gaulle on the eve of the D-Day landings in 1944 and in a display of solidarity with the US President F D Roosevelt. There is ample evidence for Churchill’s notion of the ‘United States of Europe’, as he called his vision. Nonetheless, Farage’s instrumentalisation of this isolated quote that had been taken out of context in such a manipulative manner swayed huge numbers of voters who shared it on social media all over the internet.
It is very easy to verify that Churchill, despite being a proud Brit, was a modern thinker on the vision of a united Europe who showed astonishing foresight. In the midst of the Second World War, in 1942, he wrote in a letter to his foreign minister: “Hard as it is to say now – I look forward to a United States of Europe, in which the barriers between the nations will be greatly minimised and unrestricted travel will be possible.”
In a famous speech that he delivered at the European Rally in Amsterdam on 9 May 1948, he explored this thought further, and the following quote seems to defeat the notion that Churchill would have joined the ranks of the Eurosceptics in the 21st century: “We hope to reach again a Europe united but purged of the slavery of ancient, classical times, a Europe in which men will be proud to say: ‘I am a European.’ We hope to see a Europe where men of every country will think as much of being a European as of belonging to their native land, and that without losing any of their love and loyalty of their birth place. We hope wherever they go in this wide domain, to which we set no limit in the European continent, they will truly feel: ‘Here I am at home. I am a citizen of this country too.’”
The Sydney Morning Herald reported on 8 May 1948 on Churchill's speech delivered two days earlier to the European Congress in The Hague and highlighted that four aspects of Churchill’s address particularly impressed the audience: “First was his appeal that the drive towards United Europe should be a movement of peoples, a movement in which there would be no room for personal or party jealousies. Second was his emphasis on the impossibility of separating economics and defence from the general political structure of the union. (…) Third was the reiteration of his ‘brotherly love’ attitude towards the defeated Germans. (…) Fourth was his sketch of the relationship of international groupings to a paramount world organisation.”
Churchill was a clever politician and someone who did not hesitate himself to manipulate the truth for the sake of winning an argument or an election. He had no qualms about changing his beliefs when it suited his own ambition (his party changes from Conservative to Liberal, out of political opportunism, and then back to Conservative are just as notorious as Gustav Mahler’s conversion from Judaism to Catholicism in order to secure his appointment as Director of the Vienna Court Opera House), but his views on Europe seem to lean heavily towards the arguments of those who favoured Britain’s ongoing EU membership and not those who favoured an isolationist retreat.
Amusingly, the same Winston Churchill who was used by both sides of the spectrum in last week's historical Brexit referendum, the epitome of proper democracy where decisions are literally made by the people and based on majority vote, is quoted as saying: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
Whilst this is a politically elitist and facetious point, and I whole-heartedly agree with the notion that democracy is the best possible political system in an imperfect world, it is certainly corroborated by the remorseful statements of so many voters who are now saying that they only voted ‘Leave’ because they thought that ‘Remain’ would win anyway. They simply wanted to make a point, yet relied on the status quo being maintained and did not really want to leave.
Their regret is an astonishingly open admission of their own democratic immaturity. It raises the question whether an issue of as significant importance as Britain’s membership of the EU should have been decided in an emotionally charged referendum rather than left to rational deliberations of political experts.
This was not a school debate where the best debaters win a trophy; this was a decision of significant magnitude and consequences for many, the outcome of which will be assessed by history.