The great French essayist and maxim-writer François de la Rochefoucauld wrote that “hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue.”Truly brilliant: it means that when a person acts in a manner diametrically opposed to his/her ostensible values while rhetorically supporting those values, it shows that the individual knows what is right and wrong despite choosing the latter among behavioral options.Lying, sometimes an unforgivable sin, has many types and subtypes, but the individual who is almost always unpardonable is he or she who attests to a factually false statement while knowing it is true.This type of lie is not common among those in public life, since an individual’spublic mendacity can be exposed fairly easily.
Elizabeth Warren, Democratic Candidate in Massachusetts’ 2012 Senatorial election, sent me – as one on a list of thousands, no doubt — an advertisement in which she wrote the following, with the paragraphs separated by several others:
“All the while, the news from Washington is about the same: sweetheart deals for the richest, most profitable companies in the world, like big oil; and lower tax rates for millionaires and billionaires, who ought to be paying their fair share.That’s what’s at stake in this election:are we going to be a nation that allows the people and businesses who have made it to say to everyone else, ‘I’ve got mine; you’re on your own…’ ”
“[A Scott Brown email] calls us ‘insiders, celebrities, elites occupiers and leftists.’I’m tired of the name calling and ‘us against them’ politics …[I]t is wrong for corporations like GE to pay nothing—zero – in taxes while kids are left drowning in debt to get an education.”
Glad to hear she abjures “us against them politics.”
Worse than hypocrisy is the falsehood, the unambiguous “L” word.Parenthetically, less than a month ago a Towson University administrator adjudicated a dispute in which I was involved by simply advancing a “fact” that wasn’t a fact, a “fact” that everyone involved in the dispute knew was not a “fact,” a “fact” about which I e-mailed one of the disputants asking how she could suborn such a “misstatement.”She did not respond.
This was atypical of Towson administrators.
But back to Elizabeth Warren.Her conflicting claims of when she communicated and when she didn’t communicate her undocumented Cherokee lineage to Harvard Law School do not qualify as a 100% unambiguous lie.Similarly she has claimed that she has never been advantaged by being identified as a Native American, but Harvard clearly desired to list her as a minority to increase their apparently limited minority-hiring credentials.She claims she had not told Harvard Law School officially of her background, and the School has not indicated whether its listing of a Native American therein was a reference to Warren.Warren has also described herself as potentially being Massachusetts’ first Native American Senator.
On hypocrisy, we find Warren guilty.On lying, the evidence is insufficient to call her the “L” word, but she misleads.If there were one, we’d call her the “M” word.
With apologies to the late Rodney King, “Can we all be honest?”
Professor Vatz teaches Rhetoric and Persuasion at Towson University and is author of The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion (Kendall Hunt, 2012; revision coming out, 2013]