Notes on Dealing with Liars
Posted on November 17, 2016
“Liar” is a overused and underanalyzed epithet. It carries along two very different ideas:
1. intentionally false or recklessly unsupported claim in a particular case; or
2. a general character flaw leading to repeated lies.
There was a time when people believe that good people never lie, so the two concepts were nearly merged.
However we have come to understand that most people shade the truth sometimes, so we need to make a distinction.
That’s especially true in politics, where incessantly calling your opponents “liars” tells us more about you than about your opponents.
1. Describe a particular lie as a willful false statement. Don’t attack the character of its purveyor. “Trump’s claim that Obama was born in Kenya was a willful and blatant untruth. He should be ashamed of himself.”
2. For general attacks on character, be specific:
“Trump is a compulsive and inveterate conveyor of untruths, or as we used to say, a damned liar. Therefore it is unwise to rely on anything he says.” And then give data.
3. Do not combine the two operations. Decide whether you are attacking a statement or character. When you attack character it weakens your attack on the statement. It is better to let the audience draw their own conclusions about character from a specific documented untruth, because implicit conclusions are much harder to counter than explicit ones.