Spinning versus Lying

My last post on political motives and civility generated some interesting discussion on spinning versus lying, to which I now turn.

There is a difference. And in my view, a critical difference. It is this: lying is cynical and deliberate disregard for the truth; spinning is benign disregard for the truth that never employs false facts. Or as Bill Press, former CNN Crossfire co-host and author of Spin This!, puts it, “spin is a variation on the truth; lying has no connection to the truth.”

Spinning at its most benign is simply putting an upbeat face on personal unpleasantness. “On the plus side, since the divorce and getting fired, it hasn’t been nearly as much of a challenge balancing work and family.” This is divine spinning that delivers us from the contagious anguish of self-pity.

And this is the origin of spinning: misdirection. (“Okay, other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”) Focus attention away from the unpleasantness onto something positive, even preposterously positive — without lying.

Or maybe focus on something more negative as misdirection. Defending her husband against accusations that he did what he actually did, Hillary Clinton famously said in January 1998, “the great story here, for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it, is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president.”

Spinning then spins off into eye-rolling variations we all know from television commercials and the canned responses we get when we write to our elected representatives — and onto more sinister variations that play with facts selectively.

Both lying and spinning operate on a continuum. Lying is always subject to moral condemnation, spinning only sometimes (as when it shades into lying by omission of material facts). If we confuse them, then we lose the distinctive moral category of “lying” — truly lying — and we lose it at our peril.

Lying is a critical moral category upon which we can all agree (as a category), when we use the term properly. New York Rep. Anthony Weiner united us momentarily because he was caught bald-faced lying. Everyone agreed he should go (except for a cadre of constituents who evidently don’t object to lying if a Man of the People does it). He wasn’t spinning. He was flat-out lying — and subject to shared moral condemnation in a way that spinning is not.

Spinning is a battle of contexts. Conservatives and liberals will rarely agree on appropriate contexts, guiding assumptions, the weight to be accorded certain facts, or general theories of governance. So let the free-for-all surge as to appropriate contexts, guiding assumptions, the weight to be accorded certain facts, and general theories of governance. Tackle all of these on the merits, without calling the other side “liars” for disagreeing. That is a citizen debate on the merits, without stupid ad hominem attacks and misdirections that serve only to hurl us into out our respective safe zones of Us-Good/Them-Evil.

I am not suggesting that spinning is a per se good thing or in any way off-limits for vigorous criticism. Quite the contrary. Spinning is exactly where the most vigorous debate needs to be. Condemn it most vociferously — but condemn it on the merits. Don’t shriek “lies, lies, lies” because that not only diverts the debate away from the merits, and onto whether it was really a “lie” (which it wasn’t) but convincingly signals that “lying” is an empty accusation. Our most righteous indignation about “lying” threatens to strip the notion of any shame. And that would be a shame.

In a December 1996 Esquire article entitled ”The Age of Spin,” Randall Rothenberg noted how the slang meaning of “spin” changed from the pejorative ”deceive” in the 1950s to a winking ”polish the truth” today. That is a positive and nuanced change. “Pardon me, if I might distract you for a moment, what marvelous hobbies are you pursuing in your days off?”

Attack this. Talk about the very real social pathologies of unemployment. But do not call it “lying.” Lying must remain a special category. We most often get closer to the truth, ironically, when we charge our pundits and politicians with spinning rather than lying.

The origin of much of contract and tort law is the earnest human hatred of being lied to. Much of what we think of as civilization could not have evolved without strict codes concerning lying. And that is because so much productive enterprise and so much constructive bonding occurs when we rely on the word of another. If lying were allowed to infect the culture without resolute condemnation, then social and economic relations would wither, and civilization with it.

Lying, therefore, we greet with moral disgust, because civilization depends upon it, spinning with skepticism, because intelligent debate depends upon it.

And let’s face it, there is something peculiarly American about the difference between lying and spinning. We’ve always been an entrepreneurial culture, hawkers of snake oils, homoeopathic remedies, and beverages combining sugar, caffeine and cocaine that allegedly cured morphine addiction, dyspepsia, neurasthenia, headache, and impotence (now called Coca-Cola). We’ve gotten a lot stuffier about the claims hawkers can make, but there persists in our culture a tendency to view making money — even if it parts a fool from his money –as a presumptive good, unless actual fraud is shown.

Personally, I find it disgusting. I belong in the camp of haters of advertising, and marketing, and direct mail campaigns — commerce and corporations generally, actually — all the commercial tawdriness that I am above and that makes my little cloistered camp of condescension possible. I could not exist without what I hate. Thank you, what I hate. You complete me. But I digress.

There is a difference between being lied to and being taken advantage of, notwithstanding the dangling prepositions of both. Part of our American cultural education we’re expected to finally get is a nose for swindlers. This takes some time because we’re a vastly sincere people (except for the embarrassing cadre of swindlers who power our economy), and once we get it, we can be vicious toward the swindlers precisely because we so much want to keep being sincere. This is why Americans have traveled to Nigeria to find and beat the crap out of the Nigerians who convinced them to part with their bank accounts in exchange for the promise of $8.5 million held in trust for someone willing to part with their bank account. (See also the guy sentenced to 50 years in prison for Medicare fraud.)

The Nigerian swindlers are liars, but most of what occurs in Washington and the statehouses across the nation is spinning, not lying. It’s playing with facts, not fraudulently distorting them. Yet our political dialogue tends to treat our spinning politicians and pundits like the Nigerian liars. And that’s a simplistic and serious distortion of what is occurring. We don’t talk well when the issue is “lying liars.”

We’re a better people when we have a nose for spinning and know how to challenge it on the merits.

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4 Responses to Spinning versus Lying

  1. Larry Beck says:

    great post Kendrick.

    My favorite line(s): “… all the commercial tawdriness that I am above and that makes my little cloistered camp of condescension possible. I could not exist without what I hate. Thank you, what I hate. You complete me. “

  2. Spinning at its most benign is simply putting an upbeat face on personal unpleasantness. “On the plus side, since the divorce and getting fired, it hasn’t been nearly as much of a challenge balancing work and family.” This is divine spinning that delivers us from the contagious anguish of self-pity.

    I could not exist without what I need. Thank you, what I need. 😉

  3. Snoring Dog Studio says:

    I’ve spent a lot of time thinking on this topic and still don’t have as thoughtful a response as I’d like. Perhaps you’re not excusing spin; you’re asking us to know the difference between lying and spinning and address the spinning with reasoned questioning and argument. I’m not sure what you qualify as spin, however. You didn’t provide many examples. If the boss says to the company employees: “Milt retired today” yet he was actually fired by the boss, that example doesn’t come close in grievous intent as the one you mention about the individual’s take on his unemployment. But would you consider that spinning the truth? Or just out and out lying? Much of what constitutes spin is a rhetorical exercise in getting people to adopt a certain idea about the facts. Most people are barely aware that it’s happening to us. It’s the lies or, what I call, egregious spin that we hear a lot of from our politicians – for example, “death panels.” Spin or lie? Even if spin is a variation on the truth – it still seems like lying to me because the intent is to deceive the listener.

    Perhaps it’s the goal of spinning that makes it feel just as bad as lying (if I acknowledge your difference in meaning): A person who spins looks at the facts and then uses words to distort their meaning. The ultimate goal of spin is to either frighten your constituents into believing horrible things about the issue – as in “death panels”

    Or to impugn a person’s character and his claim to the Presidency: “He won’t show us his birth certificate – could it be he wasn’t born in the U.S.?!

    Whatever the distinction may be, the result is still onerous. But I’ll say these last things – in both cases, the speaker intends to deceive the audience into mistaking what he truly intends. And this leaves the listeners vulnerable to false beliefs. In both instances, spin or lie, we all need to be ready to call it out. More politely than must of us do, though.

    • Very thoughtful Jean. To be sure, it’s a continuum. I think you’re right to be skeptical of spinning, but not to assume it’s always some form of deception. Even your use of the notorious “death panels” reference is a good example of differences of opinion with respect to spinning. “Death panels” was a charged piece of rhetoric — not one I would have recommended — but not, strictly speaking, lying. The bill did create a panel to evaluate end-of-life treatments and whether it would make sense to spend money on them. “Death panel” takes the description too far, in my opinion. But did the bill empower federal bureaucrats to make life and death decisions about seniors nearing death? Yes. Is that good or bad? I don’t need to conclude one way or the other for this purpose. Just to say it wasn’t lying. And your reference to the Birther nonsense betrays some sort of insistence that “spinning” must be right-wing lying — i.e., that you’re not really thinking about “spinning,” per se, but all that nastiness from right-wingers. All I’m saying is you can freely condemn what you perceive to be distortions from the right wing (or the left wing as the spirit moves you) without confusing the difference between lying and spinning. I know people who sincerely believed the integrity of the Constitution was at stake based upon whether Barack Obama was born in the United States. Maybe they were ginned up by other people who were cynical spinners, or who themselves became passionate believers in a suspect narrative. But do you see the difference in who and how we condemn?

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