If politics and lies had to post an update on social media about their relationship status, it would have to read ‘it’s complicated’. And thus it has been for a long time. It’s not so much that they have an antagonistic relationship, though the long record of history would seem to indicate this to be the dominant mode of engagement between the two. And only the most naïve person would insist that they are the perfect match. We know too much, and have for too long.
That said, however, the continued mistake made by many politicians seems to be that they do not need to be truthful, as long as they are sincere. As if sincerity stands in for honesty, or truth. This question of sincerity (or its opposite) surfaces most often when politicians have to apologise. The use of the qualifier ‘unreservedly’ is meant to indicate their sincerity: they really mean it.
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But of course concepts such as ‘sincerity’ are misplaced in politics. It distracts from the true business of politicians: power. The performative component of politics covers over the substance issues in politics, which is what the officials do with the power the citizenry grants them, to the benefit or the detriment of the societies they serve or govern. And therefore debating whether politicians are sincere or not, focusing on their intention, loses sight of the consequences of their actions.
Therefore, politicians asking for forgiveness, or people being asked whether they forgive politicians, also serve to distract from the business of politics. Politicians ought to be judged on their record, as one minister in the South African cabinet recently asked. But citizens ought to decide how their judgement of those political records inform their own behaviour, as voters, at least in democracies.
Bringing the issue of forgiveness into politics, often via the religious route, manipulates citizens into engaging officials and their malfeasance from a moralising, rather than a moral perspective. We are asked to see their misconduct or misdemeanour as a mistake, and judge them on their intentions, rather than on the political consequences of their actions. And this often means that the forgiveness asked for, whether sincerely or insincerely, allows for the punishment to be evaded.
In a developmental state like South Africa, we have to undo the consequences of the skewed apportioning of resources in the past, but also improve the lives of the majority excluded under a racist political economy then, and my a neoliberal capitalist economic system since. Our politicians ought therefore to be judged solely on the consequences of their actions, not on whatever intentions they profess later, or on the basis of the sincerity of their mea culpa, or worse, on the basis of the credibility of their begging for forgiveness.
It may be important in some people’s religious belief systems to practice forgiveness. It may even be an important component of the ethics people practice in their personal lives. However, in the public domain, where public resources are misappropriated, misspent, and wasted through the misconduct of politicians, the law must take its course.
We have too much work ahead of us, undoing the past and restructuring the present, in order to bring about a better future, to be distracted by apologia pretending to be apologies, and of professions of sincerity which are cheap manipulations masking the grab for or the insistence on keeping hold of power. Politics is about power, and sometimes politicians use that power for the collective good, and sometimes they abuse it for personal advantage.
If politicians want forgiveness for their malfeasance or misdemeanours, they ought to direct such issues to their preferred deities (if in such they believe). From citizens they ought to accept judgement, and citizens must use their assessment of those politicians’ deeds to change their behaviour.
Forgiveness? It’s for the gods. We have work to do here and now, fixing the problems in the present. We are a democracy, not a religion, and so we have the right to judge our politicians. Maybe if we remind them of this, they will behave better.