Jewish tradition dictates the necessity of paying attention to language. More specifically, it admonishes those who use Lashon Hora, the evil language, in attacking their fellow man. This may include libel, slander, and myriad other offenses that fall under the category of malicious falsehood. I understand that politicians toe this line more often than most; in order to attack their opponent, they pick at anything they can find, sometimes disregarding the accuracy of their words. People generally shrug this off as ‘campaigning’, but Mitt Romney’s recent speech blasting Obama’s handling of the economy, which was ridden with inaccuracies, has me wondering: why do we accept “non-factual statements” in the name of political rhetoric?
In April 2011, Arizona Senator John Kyl went on a rant against Planned Parenthood, proclaiming that over 90% of what the clinic does is provide abortions. When queried about the accuracy of this statement, as data shows that about 3% of all of Planned Parenthood’s services are abortions, Kyl’s office claimed that the senator’s words were “not intended to be a factual statement”. Late night politician Stephen Colbert sought to highlight the inaccuracy by saying and tweeting a stream of unflattering things about Kyl, all disclaimed with the tag “not intended to be a factual statement”.
Colbert’s ridiculousness highlights an important point in American political discourse: sometimes politicians lie. Or they make up data that supports their point of view with no regard to facts. I would like to make a distinction between broken campaign promises and the type of language I am discussing; the Lashon Hora I’m talking about is blatantly false information used to bolster a political argument. Sometimes, when used to defame another politician, its Lashon Hora. And sometimes it’s just bad fact-checking, bad information. In academia, every claim made in a paper must be supported through some sort of evidence – if you can’t back it up, don’t say it at all.
This isn’t about Romney versus Obama. This is about the level of accuracy we should demand of our politicians. If children in schools are taught the difference between true and false, politicians should be able to distinguish between these concepts as well. A politician cannot use the “not intended to be a factual statement” tag on their speech; by definition, our politicians are democratically elected, and should be held to a standard of proof expected in nearly every aspect of American discourse.