In January 2021, the United States of America experienced the consequences of the chaos and misery that can flow when leaders invest in lying as a means of gaining or maintaining power. Donald Trump, despite knowing (as testimony of the 1/6 Commission has shown) that he had been beaten by Joe Biden in the 2020 Presidential elections, peddled a lie that the elections were rigged. The result was the catastrophic insurrection which, from all appearances, he masterminded.
The “Big Lie” Approach
The use of a big lie in political leadership to gain ascendency over one’s political rivals is not new. The first reference to the “big lie” in modern politics dates to the 1920’s when Jews were blamed for seeking to start a war of extermination against the Germans, and thus the Germans, under Hitler, could then justify the Jewish holocaust. The nature of a big lie, as explained by Hitler in his book, Mein Kempt, is a statement so outlandish and so preposterous that a reasonable person could hardly doubt, as given its extreme nature, no one would believe that anyone would distort facts so grandiosely. So, in essence it is a lie so huge that no one could ever believe that someone would go to such lengths to make up something like that.
There have been many infamous lies in human history, which have had disastrous consequences. The claim that people of African descent are inferior to other races is one. There have also been instances in which persons applying for powerful jobs or running for office have lied about their experience, qualifications, and competencies.
The consequences of big lies to humanity, particularly to certain ethnic groups, have been far-reaching: genocides, lynching, denial of human rights, starvation, unjustified wars, racial and class conflicts, and social anarchy. One cause of mass shootings in America, results from the embrace of lies rooted in systemic racism. Four of the most recent which come to mind are the one at the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015 where nine Afro-Americans were killed, the March 2022 shooting of eight Asians in Atlanta, the May 2022 shooting of ten Afro-Americans in Buffalo New York, and the November 2022 shooting at an LGBTQ club in Colorado which resulted in at least five deaths.
Truthful engagements create the environment for trust to flourish. A lack of commitment to truthful engagements is, I submit, at the heart of these consequences, as the failure to be truthful leads to several other harmful decisions and behaviours. When lack of truthfulness becomes so embedded in the fabric of a society, society can only come to terms with the impact of these lies through a process of healing and restoration. Central to the healing process is confronting the lies on which the evil conduct is predicated.
Confronting lies and their consequences is essential to recovery
The nation of South Africa lived through decades of an apartheid system under which Blacks were designated inferior citizens. When South Africa came to its senses after many lives were lost through conflicts, it established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995. Although well publicized, it was not the first of its kind.
The objective of the commission was to:
“…help heal the country and bring about a reconciliation of its people by uncovering the truth about human rights violations that had occurred during the period of apartheid. Its emphasis was on gathering evidence and uncovering information—from both victims and perpetrators.”
Similar Commissions have been established in other countries, for example in Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Ireland, and at least another forty countries.
The Algerian Commission was set up to investigate human rights abuses which occurred in the 1990s, while the Australian Commission was established in 2021 to investigate “violent dispossession and genocide of Aboriginal people during colonization.” The Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, had a similar context, and was established in 2007 to
“…provide those directly or indirectly affected by the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools system with an opportunity to share their stories and experiences.”
The United States of America established its “January 6 Commission” to inquire into the insurrection which took place on January 6, 2021. Unlike most of the commissions mentioned above, the “1/6 Commission,” appropriately, involves criminal referrals.
The essential lesson here is that when leaders of society, whether those in elected office or otherwise, engage in conduct which is harmful to others, there are bound to be consequences both immediate and long-term. When such conduct is perpetuated, it defines the character of the society, such that recovery will require deliberate and sustained action. An even deeper lesson is that the engagement in systematic conduct which is harmful to others is often rooted in lies and misinformation. The racially motivated mass shootings in America are all based on the lie that people of non-Caucasian origin are somehow inferior or less deserving of the benefits that Caucasians enjoy.
Making truthfulness the foundation of leadership practice
Leaders have a duty and responsibility to be truthful in their utterances. The uncontrollable consequences of making false, and sometimes malicious, utterances have been shown to include loss of lives and property. Political leaders have a solemn duty to be careful in seeking to avoid making false and misleading statements, and instead engage in truthful engagements, for several reasons, but I will discuss only four here.
(1) Many followers take leaders at their word
Political leaders who wish their countries well, are guardians of their country and have a duty to protect their country. This is certainly the case in democracies, but I make this assertion while being mindful that many political leaders have no such intent or outlook but really desire power at any cost. Against this background, the need to be truthful is shown to be essential given that among the followers of political leaders are people who will take everything they say as being true. Therefore, they will likely act on what they hear from their political leaders to further what they interpret to be the objective and expectation of the leader. Imagine then how positively impactful truthful engagements would be in advancing a country’s interests and dealing with difficulties.
(2) Words inform behaviour
If one were to examine the dozens of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions which have been established in various countries, one would see that the root causes of the actions into which the commissions were charged to inquire, are lies and the concomitant violence in which people engaged as an expression of their belief in those lies. What this really means, therefore, is that when leaders lie, they potentially sow the seeds of violence. By contrast, when leaders speak truthfully, they potentially sow the seeds of goodwill. The responsibility to be truthful is, therefore, inestimable.
(3) Being truthful as the norm is a viable option
Concerns about whether it is possible for political leaders to develop and maintain the habit of telling the truth only requires a quick look at leaders such as Mia Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados, Angela Merkel, former Chancellor of Germany, Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, and Barack Obama former President of the United States of America. These leaders have been exemplary in the ways they have handled their domestic political situations as well as how they have responded to international issues. They have been consistent in telling the truth, and in so doing, have shown respect for the people whom they lead.
(4) A culture of lying creates expectations which lead to social anarchy
The way leaders behave often has the effect of shaping the cultural norms of organizations and countries. Psychologically, lying is a tool of using unfair means to get one’s way. Thus, a leader who lies and gets away assumes a sense of invincibility and will likely become addicted to the tool of using unfair means to get his or her way. When the habit of lying in the course of public duties becomes embedded and occurs without consequences, the bar for public conduct is lowered and the use of unfair means to get one’s way become the norm.
Taxi drivers strike in Jamaica
I was driven to reflect on the practice of the use of unfair tools to get one’s way, with one such tool being lying, as I considered the recent two days of protest action by taxi drivers in Jamaica. Taxi drivers in Jamaica are, perhaps, among the worst in the world. These drivers rack up dozens, and in some cases, hundreds of traffic tickets.
The strike was ostensibly an attempt to get the government to grant them an amnesty (with a payment plan) for the dozens or hundreds of tickets their members have received. The government was reportedly considering the demand / request of the taxi drivers. Some protesting taxi drivers or their colleagues prevented other taxi drivers, who were not supportive of the protests, from providing service. The situation was one of anarchy and showed a society in disarray and disorder.
While the analysis of the decision of the taxi drivers may reveal many underlying causes, one contributor which I submit cannot be overlooked is the impact of the example of political leaders who use unfair means to get their way. The tone is set at the top.
Notwithstanding, the issue is complex. Firstly, there is a general breakdown in discipline in almost every sector of society, including corrupt politicians and weak socialization systems in the home and school. Secondly, there is the reckless driving behaviour of many taxi drivers who repeatedly violate the road code. Thirdly, there are instances in which the police issue tickets to spite the taxi driver who refuses to pay them directly (reflecting in part the corruption in the police force). Fourthly, there is an unreliable ticketing system; fifthly, widespread disregard for the law which leads to some taxi drivers having dozens or hundreds of unpaid tickets, and sixthly, political interference in the job of policing.
The solution to this problem of social anarchy is multifaceted but must start with root causes. The taxi strike was an exhibit of that problem. One major root cause is the conduct of leaders, especially those who hold political office. Where citizens see standards of conduct among leaders whose conduct reflects the values of which they speak, those standards of conduct create expectations among citizens and inform their behaviours. When the leaders lie and misconduct themselves and are not held accountable, some citizens will come to expect that they can do so. The duty to be truthful cannot be overemphasized.
Professor Canute Thompson is Professor of Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership at the School of Education, The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, and Head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning. He is author of two award-winning books and articles, among his collection of eight books and over a dozen journal articles, and the operator of leadershipreimagination.com website.