It is the political season, and we are starting to see a lot of political advertisements.
There is one particular type of advertisement that I am interested today – one that shows that the person who sponsored (or "approves of") this message is somebody of dubious moral character. It is a type of advertisement where a candidate speaks about what the other candidate has voted on or wants to do.
"My opponent voted to abolish social security," or "My opponent said that he has no interest in protecting the lives and freedoms of Americans," or similar statement.
These types of advertisements are often called, "attack ads." However, that term is far too broad. It is often used to refer to any advertisement that says anything negative about an opponent. Yet, taken to its extreme, a prohibition on "attack ads" or “negative advertising” would also be a prohibition on saying many true things about others. The problem with these advertisements is not that they "attack" or that they are 'negative'. The problem is that they are dishonest.
These types of advertisements fall into a type of political strategy where the goal for the candidate is to "define" her opponent. He "defines" her as being soft on crime, or weak on national defense, or as heartless, or as unpatriotic. He does so by taking votes and statements out of their original context and presenting them to the public in such a way that the public is invited to give a negative view of that opponent.
"My opponent voted against armor for American troops in Iraq."
That’s doubtful. I doubt that any Senator or Representative said, "I think it is better to have American soldiers blown to bits than to protect them from bombs and bullets." Chances are that there was something else going on here. Chances are that the advertisement, in failing to look at the context in which the vote was cast, is imply not being honest about what "my opponent" did.
This illustrates what is wrong with these types of advertisements. They are almost always lies. I think that a strong case can be made that every advertisement where one candidate talks about what his or her opponent did or said is a lie – because none of those advertisements have enough time to include enough context to give the reader or listener an accurate understanding of the event. They can only lift the vote or statement out of context. But lifting a vote or statement out of context results in changing its meaning. Presenting this changed meaning as the meaning of the actual vote or statement is a lie – an untruth.
I have defined a lie as any action that communicates to others a proposition that is not true. A person lies when he believes that X, he wants somebody else to believe not-X, and communicates with that somebody else in some way that intends to promote in that person a belief that not-X.
That is exactly what these advertisements do – promote attitudes that are not true. That is exactly what these advertisements must do. There is no way to design an advertisement like this that is 30 to 60 seconds long that is not deceptive. Or, if there is a way, then it happens very, very rarely.
This is because these advertisements function by taking somebody else's vote, or somebody else's statement, out of its context. As such, they report that the opponent said something that he did not say, or that he cast a vote that he did not cast.
The only way to be honest about what the opponent said or did would be to put the vote or the statement back in its original context, and to look at the reasons for and against that action. However, putting the action back in its original context takes a great many more words – which is why a 30 second advertisement of the form, "My opponent voted to do this," or "My opponent said that," cannot possibly tell the truth. It is because the people making the advertisement cannot put the vote or statement in its correct context in 30 seconds.
There is a second problem with this type of political advertisement. Defining oneself or others takes money. The idea is that, if you repeat a lie often enough, people start to believe it. So, this tactic throws the election to whomever can throw the most lies in front of the average voter. The person who can lie the most often and the loudest is the one with the most money. The opponent, unless he also has money, cannot prevent herself from being defined in this way, and will almost certainly lose the race.
Consequently, because we are a culture that allows this type of deception and because we respond to it by believing these distortions rather than condemning the liar, we live in a society where the dishonest candidate is the most likely winner and the dishonest candidate who sells himself for the most money can defeat the dishonest candidate who attracts less money.
The remedy for this problem is to condemn the candidate who lies to earn public office – who produces an advertisement that falsely claims that they can accurately present what their opponent has done or believes in 30 seconds or less. The instant that one of these types of advertisements comes on the air, you should know that the candidate supporting the advertisement is fundamentally dishonest.
And that, more than the misleading context in the message, is what should determine your vote. The country would be better off if we were to make it a cultural priority to keep these types of people out of public office.