While most people have rather selective memories, this can be a real problem for politicians. After all, there are often documents, video clips and so on that can be rather inconvenient. The latest incident involves Nancy Pelosi.
The incident got rolling when Pelosi claimed that she was not briefed by the CIA about the “enhanced” interrogation techniques. After evidence surfaced that she had, in fact, been informed about this matter, she began to use a tactic comparable to that employed by Bill Clinton when he launched into a semantic debate over the meaning of “sex.”In Pelosi’s case, she leaped into a hair splitting exercise regarding the nuanced distinctions between “briefed”, “informed” and so on. While such distinctions are relevant in, for example, a dictionary or an academic discussion, they are obviously not relevant in this case. The main concern was whether Pelosi knew about the techniques and not exactly what sort of methodology was employed in providing her with that information.
To use an analogy, imagine if Ted said “I did not walk over and stab Nancy” and it was shown that he did stab Nancy. In his defense, Ted then says “Well, I shuffled over and stabbed her. After all, I’m sort of old and walking implies a more robust motion.” Clearly, Ted misses the point. What matters is that he stabbed Nancy, not how he got within stabbing range. But, is Pelosi lying?
She certainly seems to have said some untrue things. But, of course, lying is not just saying things that are untrue. For example, if I am asked where my laptop is and I give the wrong answer because it has been moved by someone else or I forgot I moved it, then I have not lied. Lying requires an intent to deceive and an awareness of the deceit. So, if Nancy Pelosi did not remember the briefing (or whatever one wants to call it), then her claim that she was not informed would be (apparently) untrue, but not a lie. However, if she was aware that she had been informed and said she was not with an intent to deceive, then she would have lied. The fact that she has been frantically resorting to fine semantic distinctions does seem to suggest a certain dishonesty, though.
Interestingly, while we seem to think that politicians are lying scum, we still get outraged when they lie in certain ways or about certain things. For example, we accept that most campaign promises will be broken but get rather upset when a politician lies about having an affair. As another example, stupid lies also seem to anger people. Perhaps this is because that while we accept that our politicians lie, we want them to at least be competent and clever liars. In any case, Pelosi seems to have done something that has angered people on both the right and the left.
There is, of course, an interesting psychological question about why people do such things. Now, if Pelosi honestly forgot, then the answer is easy and obvious as to why (of course, one has to then explain the following song and dance attempt to get out of the fire).
People generally tend to recall things that support their self image and forget what goes against it. So, perhaps she did “forget” about the briefing because of this. After all, being an informed party in regards to torture would certainly seem to go against her desired image. In this case it would be a deception, but a self-deception.
People, especially politicians, can also be flexible with the truth in order to avoid a harm or to gain an advantage. For example, Hillary Clinton might have spun the yarn about coming under fire in 1996 to boost her image. Likewise, perhaps Pelosi spun the tale about not knowing about the interrogation techniques to avoid damage to her image. If so, it is ironic that her attempts have done more damage than an honest admission would have.
Naturally, one might wonder why someone would say something that can easily be disproven. Perhaps they think they can get away with it. Perhaps they are caught up in the moment and act in desperation. Perhaps it is a moment of stupidity. Perhaps they believe it, just for that moment, and then the damage is done. In any case, it is a fascinating to see seemingly intelligent people fall into this trap over and over again.