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Dangerous White Lies

When I started teaching at the university level, about 1,500 students ago, I had no idea that I’d ever have to dedicate class time to address honesty. Some brief reminders on plagiarism was all that I was used to. That Melania Trump could use some help, her “Be Best” speech was stolen from Michelle Obama, is good for a couple laughs. Over time truth has become quite an issue. What sense should my students make of a president who’d told 4,229 lies in the first 558 days of his presidency? What about his claims about “fake news?” Over and over Donald Trump cries out “FAKE NEWS” only for the story to be confirmed as true. My job is not to be an oracle of truth, I don’t lie, but that only encourages the return to authority as truth; I try to give the tools for navigating the terrain of dishonesty, but I’ll admit it is getting harder.

“All politicians lie.”

Statements of universal political dishonesty are ubiquitous, but are they accurate? In class students are expected to learn about ad hominem arguments, this is the fallacy of attacking a source instead of the claim, which is intended to inspire a false equivalence. That Trump has lied at a pace without any comparison is not in and of itself proof that any particular statement is a lie, it is just good evidence for claiming him to be untrustworthy. Barack Obama lost some trust when he won the lie of the year distinction in 2013 for saying, “if you like your health care plan you can keep it.” Claims must be judged on their merits, period. Not all lies are the same, and a university education is expected to provide students with the ability to evaluate claims. Clearly some politicians are more honest than others.

“It is just he said, she said…”

Trump’s recent nomination to the Supreme Court is a controversy, like many (maybe even most) of his decisions so it is not surprising that people have chosen sides. But many popular memes are simple not true. “He said, she said” is an effort to make an equivalence in testimony, and it is used to argue towards the point that if you’re going to believe testimony, then you must trust both testimonies equally. The point could not be further from the truth. Testimony is evidence, and evidence is used to support or deny claims. Witness testimony is one of the most common types of evidence used, and there are many mitigating factors used in judging the veracity of its value as evidence. Evidence must always be weighed against a standard of judgment.

“Supporting Kavanaugh means you believe in innocent until proven guilty.”

Students are very confused about standards of judgment. Despite the factual basis for standards of judgment—let me be clear here, class, the presumption of innocence relates to criminal law—the hearing for a Supreme Court Justice is not a criminal matter, it is a job interview. The elevated standard—beyond reasonable doubt—is used in criminal cases because a person’s freedom or life is at stake. Other cases use different standards, like “preponderance of the evidence” or “clear and convincing.” The burden of proof is different out of utility, an employer does not need to “prove” you were smoking marijuana outside before the interview, they may pass on your application just for smelling the weed on you, even in a state where it has been legalized.

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” ― Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Senator Jeff Flake used this quote when he called out Trump’s dishonesty. He noted “alternative facts” and the assault on the free press among his criticisms. He was troubled by Trump’s naming of the press as “the enemy of the people.” Flake is credited with getting the Senate to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct in the Kavanaugh nomination, which may have been prompted by two women confronting him with their “my assault does matter” in an elevator. But the fact here is that the investigation was limited. The Whitehouse has been allowed complete control over “facts,” they determined some allegations were not credible enough to be investigated. Fact: checks and balances were put in place on purpose. Opinion: we should be scared that Trump has too much influence over appointing a judge who could possibly have a deciding vote in a case on his impeachment; the lies are destroying the country, and the US has become a complete laughing stock; the Russian troll farms were able to weaponize American ignorance and susceptibility to dishonesty—the lies have real consequences. When will Americans become lifelong learners and begin to sift truth from lies competently?

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