We're fast becoming a country where lies are not just more common but are accepted as normal. Through the years, we've become accustomed to a little political sidestep, where politicians don't answer the question asked but instead respond with a totally different and irrelevant answer. But lately this sidestep has morphed into outright lying -- the kind of lying that's not just blurted out in a poorly worded response to a question, but that is strategically planned, frequently repeated and widely disseminated until it, too often, becomes accepted as truth.
In the bellwether state of Ohio, Politifact Ohio, an affiliate of the national organization established by the Tampa Bay Times, reported, over a two-year span, 183 false or somewhat false statements versus 215 true or somewhat true statements. Of the false statements, 130 were delivered by Republicans, 67 by Democrats and 18 by others.
Nationally, Politifact gave Sarah Palin's 2009 proclamation about government death panels a Pants on Fire rating, as it did the 2010 Republican declaration that Obamacare was a government takeover of health care, and, the 2011 Democrat Congressional Campaign Committee's pronouncement that Republicans voted to end Medicare.
These patently false statements degrade American civic engagement. A study just released by the national PR firm Weber Shandwick shows that more than two-thirds of Americans are disengaging from politics -- fed up because of the lack of civility and lack of truth.
The lies emanate from both major political parties and from both presidential candidates, from sitting presidents, House speakers and ordinary politicians in state, local and national elections. We don't have to stretch our collective memories too far to recall a sitting president doing his own sidestep about the definition of sex. That alone affected "sexual" activity among teens, who thought it was now ok because it wasn't sex.
How did we get here? In an article in the Los Angeles Times, Victor Dorff, a math teacher at Pallisades Charter High School in California, shares his insight:
"Once upon a time, being an honorable person included the notion that your word was your bond, and integrity was a crucial element in establishing a good reputation. At least, that was part of the narrative that made up our social compact. My teaching experience tells me, however, that lying and cheating are seen by a lot of kids today as a crucial part of any path to success. The only shame is getting caught."
Dorff goes on to say that students feel that this behavior is an accepted part of success because they see examples on Wall Street, in business and in politics, with no one being punished for their actions. On occasion, a Bernie Madoff or Penn State is made an example by authorities, but these are seen as anomalies.
In America, we highly value Success or, in the words of Charlie Sheen, "winning." These values are reinforced in advertising, sports, politics, business, schools and families. If you're not a winner, you're a loser. But when winning is everything and Success is not won through a commitment to honesty and integrity, everyone suffers.
University of Notre Dame psychology professor Dr. Anita Kelly reports that lying actually decreases personal health. Based on her sample of 110 Americans ages 18-71, she notes that when lying increases, health decreases, and vice versa. The same can be said of our collective health as a nation.
Dorf says that the problem of dishonesty needs to be addressed as part of a cultural problem. "It is up to us to make it unacceptable not only in schools but also throughout society. Every time we accept it as unavoidable or tolerable, we help ensure that the culture of cheating is passed onto the next generation," he says.
I think he's right. While the politicians continue their sidesteps and the spin-doctors and admen doctor the truth in politics, business and academia, the consequences of their actions go far beyond winning and losing -- they affect who we are.
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