Friday, January 25, 2002

Why, asks Slate's Michael Kinsley, does society treat political "spin" with so much more indulgence than it accords plain, old-fashioned lies? Though Kinsley treats the question as a great enigma, the answer is in fact clear to anyone who understands the ambiguous nature of what might be described as "public morality".

A private individual cannot "spin" about himself; he can only lie outright ("the check is in the mail"; "I'll respect you in the morning") for his own selfish benefit, or tell a "white lie" ("I love your tie") for the unselfish benefit of somebody else. The former is of course generally considered unethical, whereas the latter is usually condoned or even applauded for its positive effects (or at least its positive intentions).

For public figures such as corporate executives and politicians, on the other hand, there is an intermediate possibility: they can lie for the benefit their own organizations or constituencies. This type of lying is neither completely selfless nor completely selfish, and is therefore subject to a more subtle set of rules. For example, it is usually considered unacceptable to lie about objective matters ("our check is in the mail", "I did not have sexual relations with that woman"), even for the sake of one's own group; however, it may be an acceptable expression of loyalty to lie about one's own subjective feelings or opinions with respect to group endeavours ("I'm really excited about our electoral prospects"; "I really like our new line of ties"), if the group would thus benefit. This type of lying is known as "spin".

While most non-members of the group tend to treat such spin as innocuous, opponents of the group, or anyone else who stands to lose if the spinning succeeds, may well object to it. If the complainers also form a group, then members of that second group can falsely express sputtering outrage at the putative dishonesty of the first group's members--thus generating "counterspin". And, of course, the cycle can escalate, sometimes to quite a pitch of hostility--as if two acquaintances were battling furiously over which felt more passionate affection for the other's tie.

As in most matters of etiquette, the public has a fairly clear but largely unconscious understanding of the rules of spin; hence the lack of outcry when a politician engages in flagrant, shameless spinning. I would have thought that Kinsley, usually an astute observer of social conventions, would have penetrated this mystery long ago. But then, perhaps he did, and his professed puzzlement--justifying a whole column rather than this simple three-paragraph explanation--is merely spin delivered for the benefit of his magazine.

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