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  • I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.

  • People have got to know whether or not their president's a crook.

  • Well, I'm not a crook.

  • That means allowing Americans who like their doctor and like their healthcare plan to keep their plan.

  • What do these statements have in common?

  • Well, they were all made by American presidents and they have all rather famously been called lies.

  • But, the similarities really end there.

  • Now you can call all three statements untrue, but lying requires an intent to deceive, which means you have to know what the person who said it was actually thinking.

  • And that's where things can get a bit tricky.

  • Take, for example, "I am not a crook."

  • Nixon said it and yet he was forced to resign from office.

  • His successor even pardoned him.

  • So, was Nixon lying about being a crook?

  • Maybe, but maybe not.

  • He seems to have thought that crook was synonymous with bad person, and for him, setting up his own little dirty tricks unit and covering up its existence, was not all that bad.

  • Now take, "If you like your health-care plan, "you can keep it."

  • When he was promoting Obamacare, Barack Obama almost certainly thought that this was true.

  • He was, in fact, scorned and embarrassed when it turned out that many people were forced to change their coverage later.

  • In other words, this looks a lot more like a mistake.

  • And how about, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."

  • Here we can brandish the big scarlet L for liar.

  • Bill Clinton knew what he had done and any ordinary person would consider that sexual relations.

  • He knew what he was saying was false, and that's a lie.

  • American politicians, of course, are hardly unique.

  • When Brexiteers campaigned in a big, red bus, the first half of that famous slogan on the side was not quite a lie, but not quite true.

  • We send 350 million pounds to the EU each week.

  • Well, that was true but the UK got back millions of pounds each week too.

  • That was intended to mislead and it did.

  • Public figures, of course, have always said things that weren't true.

  • Take Donald Trump.

  • He says so many things that are so quickly and easily proved untrue, it looks almost like he doesn't even care about the truth.

  • Take, for example, when he said that Barack and Michele Obama have a 10 foot wall around their house in Washington.

  • They don't.

  • Many people said this was yet another lie by Donald Trump.

  • But it's possible that this misses the point, that statements like this from Trump have a whole different purpose, to entertain, to provoke or arouse, rather than to say something literally true.

  • One eminent philosopher has even given a memorable label to this kind of talk, bullshit.

  • As distinct from a liar, a bullshitter doesn't even care about the truth, it's beside the point.

  • And if we throw around the word lie when we don't know the speaker's state of mind for sure, then we're weakening the word lie and its meaning.

  • It's better to use other words like nonsense, exaggeration, untruth, or even just bullshit.

  • Using these exact terms will only make it more effective when we catch powerful people red-handed in a true, no-doubt-about-it lie.

I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.

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