• In politology-speak, truth-telling is when one does their very best to state facts as honestly as possible and as they remember them.
• It recognises that each of us invariably has limited knowledge about all the granular details of any issue.
“What is truth?”
This question was posed by Pontius Pilate who was a Roman governor appointed in 26 AD under the emperor of Tiberius. As the governor, Pilate had the power of a supreme judge. This meant that he had the sole authority to order a criminal’s execution.
The Sanhedrin, which was an elite club of priestly and lay Jewish elders, had arrested Jesus during the Jewish festival of Passover, and brought him to Pilate. They accused him of blasphemy for declaring himself to be the King of the Jews. And this allegation angered them deeply for it was considered treasonous. When Pilate enquired of the charges brought against Jesus, the Sanhedrin replied that had He not been a criminal, they would not have charged him in Pilate’s court. Pilate, not being a Jew, told the Sanhedrin to take Jesus away and charge Him under the Jewish laws. The Sanhedrin objected to this and reminded Pilate that they had no power to execute anyone.
So Pilate summoned Jesus and asked Him if indeed He was the King of the Jews to which Jesus responded, “You say that I am a King. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.
“What is truth?” retorted Pilate. Pilate was in a crisis. He wanted to establish the truth because he found no basis for a charge against Jesus.
The country is in a crisis. We are combating the global Covid-19 pandemic, which has had unprecedented health, social and economic ramifications. Salient measures have been taken to curb the spread of this disease, and the relevant authorities have frequently updated the nation on the status.
However, this week, an allegation surrounding the management of the coronavirus in Kenya was made and publicised on social media platforms by Dagoretti South MP John Kiarie, popularly known as KJ. This allegation did not sit well with the team spearheading the fight against this pandemic, and also with many social media users. KJ was accused of not telling the truth, spreading fear, using the wrong platforms as a political leader to articulate issues, and of seeking cheap publicity and populism.
When covertly berating KJ, Health CS Mutahi Kagwe, told him that as a leader, he was expected to speak the truth.
But as Pilate asked, we also ask “What is truth?” Is it the opposite of a lie? Is it telling half a truth? Are some lies selfish while others are strategic?
In politology-speak, truth-telling is when one does their very best to state facts as honestly as possible and as they remember them. It recognises that each of us invariably has limited knowledge about all the granular details of any issue. It also presupposes that our narration of what we consider as truth, is not influenced by unconscious bias. Unconscious bias are learned stereotypes that are automatic, deeply engrained within our belief system and affect our behaviour and responses.
In contrast, deception is where one intentionally takes steps that are carefully designed to prevent others from knowing the full truth about an issue. And there are three types of deception; lying, concealment and spinning.
Lying is when one makes a statement that he knows to be completely false. It involves inventing statements that are trumped up to deceive the audience hoping they will think it is true. Lying can also involve disingenuous arrangements of facts to tell a lie. The intention is to deliberately lead the audience to a false conclusion without explicitly stating what the conclusion is. For example, the BBI proponents have told us that expanding the Executive to include representation from different tribes is the panacea to our cyclical post-election violence. This is a lie.
Concealment is when one omits or withholds certain factual information that he knows will weaken his narrative, but that is crucial in assisting the audience to make informed decisions. It consists of willfully neglecting to provide crucial information which if presented, would change the outcome of the discourse, from his original intent.
For example, we were told that transferring of some functions from the Nairobi county to the national government was meant to ensure that city residents continued to receive services, whose efficiency had been compromised by the leadership vacuum in the county’s executive. Constitutional experts rebuffed this explanation and called it a flawed and legally defective hostile takeover, while the MCAs retreated in their bid to impeach the Governor. This was concealment.
Spinning is exaggeration or distortion, not prevarication. It is a form of propaganda achieved through sophisticated selling of a specific message that is heavily biased in favour of one’s own position, in order to influence public opinions. The spinner emphasises certain facts and links them together in ways that portray him in a positive light, or to the intended conclusion he wants from his listener.
The techniques involve careful timing in delivering information, selective presentation of facts, and careful selection of words and phrases meant to invoke certain anticipated responses from listeners, and exert control over a situation.
In times of crisis, press conference rooms are cynically referred to as the “spin room”, the schedule of briefings as the “spin cycle” and the practitioners of the spin as “spin doctors”. For example, in 2017, before the self-immolation of the NASA coalition, the principals convened a press conference where Raila posited that the cost of the SGR project was supposed to be Sh227 billion, but was inflated by Sh100 billion by the Jubilee government. However, this was soon debunked when it was revealed that the project was estimated to cost Sh340 billion, and that the estimates were provided before the Jubilee government assumed power in 2013. This was spinning.
KJ told us that there are 7,000 Kenyans in quarantine who arrived back between Wednesday and Sunday; and that in Dagoretti South constituency, they were hosting them in Lenana School and Kinyanjui Technical. He also went on to give a situational analysis on other issues such as the adequate number of test kits and projected positive estimates going by global trends. In the same breath, he also offered suggestions in improving the management of the Covid-19 spread such as identifying additional isolation centres, provisions of masks and clean water, deployment of community health workers and legislative responses.
Begs the question, did KJ tell the truth? And if he didn’t, did he lie, conceal or spin the narrative? You be the judge.
How we live and die, what and who we value, and what we believe, is dependent on this one question, “what is truth?”
Finally, my unsolicited advice is to all leaders; you win by going on the offensive. Defense only delays your enemy. Likewise, it is a natural human reflex to hide unpleasant information. However, great leaders appreciate that timely truthful admissions, accelerate course corrections in a spiralling crisis.
You can tell a politician is lying, if his lips are moving – Anonymous