Monday, June 17, 2013

Tribes of Liars

This time in June always reminds me of those long days in grade school just before summer vacation, when we were kept occupied by Twenty Questions and the same riddles year after year involving matches, ice, goldfish, and some kid whose mom was a doctor.

The riddle that really intrigued me involved a guy, a Tribe of Liars, and a question.

The guy is lost in a jungle occupied by two tribes: the Tribe that Always Tells the Truth, and the Tribe that Always Lies. After many days, he comes across a tribesperson at a fork in the path. He needs to know which fork leads out of the jungle, but he can’t tell if he's facing a truth-teller or a liar, and he can only ask one question. What can he ask to ensure that he gets the right answer?

For me, the real riddle was why he only got one question. Was one of the tribes also the Tribe that Would Kill You If You Asked More than One Question? I could suspend disbelief for a Tribe of Truth-Tellers and a Tribe of Liars, but this other condition was just inexplicable.

Listening to Mayor Ford’s evasions and equivocations about the crack video this past month, I felt like the guy in the jungle. What one question, I started wondering, could we ask that would ensure a truthful answer? And then I realized it wouldn't matter how carefully we worded the question, because there is no rule in place to compel the Mayor to answer honestly, or at all. Our powerlessness in this situation is the real riddle. 

When people want to speak honestly, they tell the simple truth. When they believe they can lie with impunity, they flat-out lie. When they want to lie but are afraid of being caught out, they equivocate. Equivocations are easy to spot because there is something off about the language; it ducks and dodges and veers away. An equivocation might be partially true, or technically true, or true if you squint one eye and shut the other, but it arises out of the same intention as the flat-out lie: the intention to deceive.

In these last days before summer vacation, I believe we know the answer to our question, but we’re still baffled by the conditions that surround the asking and the answering, and the fact that when elected officials deceive us, we can't do anything about it. 

Well, except vote.

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