Trust in Words

Like many Americans, I watched President Obama’s address to the nation Monday night about the debt ceiling crisis, and the Republican response. While there may have been some exaggerations in the President’s remarks, none really popped out at me. Perhaps that’s because of my liberal bias. I was pre-disposed to have a generally favorable view of what Obama was going to say. On the other hand, also due to my bias (at least I’m honest about it), and because after more than a few decades observing the American political scene, I have found that those on the right have a tendency to be less truthful, I was ready to play gotcha with John Boehner. And sure enough, he did not disappoint.

Boehner exaggerated when he claimed that last week’s “Cut, Cap, and Balance” Act passed the House passed “with bipartisan support.” Now, just a few hours earlier I had been watching “Hardball” with Chris Matthews when this subject came up and I remember an exchange between the host and  Sen. Mike Lee, a tea party supporter, in which it was revealed that only five Democrats voted in favor of the bill. That’s hardly what anyone would call “bipartisan.”

It reminded me of something by Chuang Tzu, the Taoist philosopher who is thought to have authored a seminal work of Chinese philosophy named after him. This is from the Burton Watson translation, found in The complete works of Chuang Tzu:

Let me tell you something else I have learned. In all human relations, if the two parties are living close to each other, they may form a bond through personal trust. But if they are far apart, they must use words to communicate their loyalty, and words must be transmitted by someone. To transmit words that are either pleasant to both parties or infuriating to both parties is one of the most difficult things in the world. Where both parties are pleased, there must be some exaggeration of the good points and where both parties are angered, there must be some exaggeration of the bad points. Anything that smacks of exaggeration is irresponsible. Where there is irresponsibility, no one will trust what is said, and when that happens, the man who is transmitting the words will be in danger. Therefore the aphorism says, ‘Transmit the established facts; do not transmit words of exaggeration.’ If you do that, you will probably come out all right.”

I don’t know what the real solution to our political deadlock is, but politicians speaking with words that can be trusted would be a great beginning.