Telling the truth, even when you don’t want to

My granddaughter’s kindergarten teacher asked her class what it meant to be “honest.” My granddaughter replied that being honest requires that, “You tell the truth even if you don’t want to.”

We should demand the same definition of honesty in politics.

Our relatively short-lived experiment in “government of the people, by the people and for the people” as described by Abraham Lincoln, is dependent on voting by informed and educated citizens. Becoming informed and educated is not an easy task. Both sides of any issue or supporters of opposing candidates present their side in the best light possible. Each disparages the other side. Both use half truths, vague accusations, distracting but emotional rhetoric and blatant lies to sway our votes. The media loves a fight and many “news” sources seem to try to amplify the misinformation rather than provide real facts.

One of the most effective marketing techniques is to use fear. Anti-abortion supporters depict health care providers who perform abortions as evil outsiders who take advantage of desperate women for devious purposes. The other side describes their opponents as extremists trying to put government in some of the most intimate decisions women make, forcing a return to coat hangers and knitting needles. Neither picture is true.

We have heard how the unaccompanied minors crossing our borders are bringing deadly diseases in our midst. Those who seek tighter gun controls depict post numbers of daily gun deaths. Gun control opponents try to convince us that bad guys with guns are going to take everything away from us all unless we ourselves are armed.

Issues such as the initiated measure to set aside money from the oil extraction taxes for land and soil conservation brings out the worst in all of us. One side depicts a wasteland covered with oil sludge. The other side sends out press releases projecting that in 25 years there will be no farmland for sale in the entire state because it will have all been bought up by hunting preserves and state parks. Children will either never see a duck or  their schools will be short changed needed dollars. The sound bites from both sides have a little truth, some omissions of facts, much exaggeration and sometime out-and-out falsehoods.

Behavior scientists have studied how we come to believe what we do, even when the evidence points in the opposite direction. We come to our beliefs as a result of our own experience and world view. Our emotions push us to nod in agreement to the side of an argument that coincides with what we already believe. Even when we hear logical, documented, vetted arguments to the contrary, we dismiss those points because they don’t fit with what we think we know. For example, the opponents of the ballot’s conservation measure persisted in repeating the bullet point that 75 percent of the money designated by proposed constitutional amendment would be required to be spent every year. The measure specifically says that 75 percent of the amount set aside every year must be allocated, not spent. On the other hand, the proponents of the measure glossed over some supporters’ past efforts to change the state’s corporate farming laws, even as those same groups made the claim that farmland would be protected by that very law.

Our own emotions play tricks on our logic and political marketing. Public relations teams deliberately use deceit to sway our thinking. How can we possibly make good decisions?

We can expect better. Most issues have two valid sides and there are honest, sincere, caring people who support both sides. We should be suspicious of arguments that depict everyone on the other side as stupid, evil, outsiders, without morals, or less religious than ourselves. Dehumanizing an opponent is a basic tenet of propaganda. It is a deliberate attempt to manipulate us.

We can ask questions, especially if we think we already know the answer. We can stop being afraid. Fear doesn’t solve problems or keep us safe.

We should ask that our side, as well as the other side, be honest and tell the truth even when they don’t want to.

Copyright © 2014 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains