Broken Promise Land

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This was the first article I had published in Lanka Monthly Digest (LMD). It appeared in the December 2007 issue.


“When in doubt, tell the truth. It will confound your enemies and astound your friends,” said Mark Twain. “Unless it would impose the silence of slavery, no government can afford to ignore its obligation to the truth,” said Michel Foucault. And Rauf Hakeem said in a recent interview: “The subject of political morality is a relative thing. The current electoral system does not give any government the confidence to try and deliver on the commitments made during the polls.”



In daily life, we all constantly encounter the kind of broken promises and untruthfulness which Hakeem sees as a natural part of political life. Associated concepts are trust, loyalty, confidence, frankness, sincerity, right livelihood, betrayal, perjury, smear, spin, manipulation, hypocrisy, self-delusion, forgetfulness and corruption.


None of these issues  are exclusive to Sri Lanka, but this is my home and here are some Sri Lankan examples I have encountered,  which illustrate how frustrating and exhausting it is to get the simplest task done- and how corrosive a lack of truthfulness can be in friendship, business and politics.


Promises, by their very nature, have consequences. A friend who is a vet agreed to perform surgery on our dog, which she told us to starve. After six months, we haven’t seen or heard from her. If we had taken her at her word, the dog would be dead by now.


A roofing-tile company agreed to view our site and provide an estimate. I telephoned the salesman when he didn’t show up. He was in Ratnapura and couldn’t get to us. We didn’t buy that company’s tiles. Its Managing Director said when I complained: “That’s Sri Lanka, no?”



The CEB (Ceylon Electricity Board) said that its staff would come on Thursday. They didn’t. They said that they would be there on Friday. They turned up a month later, but we were away. In its office is a sign that says: ‘The Customer Is King’.


Hakeem is echoing the American philosopher Richard Rorty, who wrote: “Language is just human beings using marks and noises to get what they want.” The doctrine that there can be no absolute truth seems to have sprung from the discovery that scientists can err and that cultural factors inevitably colour our perceptions.


Other philosophers such as Mary Midgley combat this post-modernist relativism, maintaining that without a concept of absolute truth, “how, then, could we describe the world?”



All jurisdictions punish perjury, because justice cannot be done unless all parties adhere to the truth. The absolute language of the oath has a pragmatic purpose. Professor Bernard Williams writes about the two virtues, accuracy (doing everything we can to make our beliefs sensitive to the truth) and sincerity (expressing what one really believes without deception). He cites as an example the tobacco company executive who knows that his product may kill,  but his own life and peace of mind depend on avoiding that fact. He may accommodate himself to this by wishful thinking about the evidence. Williams sees any person lied to as a victim of an abuse of power who has been put in a powerless position that results in resentment and rage. The tobacco salesman may simply lie. The victim might die.


In our imperfect world, the white lie is hard to avoid. Frankness may prove costly in both public and private life, and it is not necessarily scheming or devious to hold back from absolute honesty. The man who prides himself on his bluntness may also have to be content with his own company, as he may not retain any friends. We might call this withholding of, or economy with, frankness tact – rather than insincerity.


Does more good than harm flow from the telling of a lie? According to Henry Sidgwick, in The Methods of Ethics, we must weigh “the gain of any particular deception against the imperilment of mutual confidence involved in all violation of the truth”. Practices of deception tend to multiply and reinforce one another and it takes an excellent memory to keep the thatch of one’s untruths in good enough repair to keep the rain out.


Mostly, the real reason for a lie is simply the advantage to the liar. Politicians use the white-lie justification to vindicate self-serving manipulation. The electorate is masochistic enough to let them get away with this. We are complicit, but delude ourselves thus: “Politicians are corrupt, but what to do?”


Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, was recently grilled by a tribunal investigating corruption. Few doubt he took large sums of cash from businessmen on four occasions. His testimony has been described as “rambling and incoherent”, and he has changed his story so many times that some of it has to be a lie. Polls show that less than one-third of voters believe him, but also show a sharp increase in support for his government and a corresponding drop in support for the opposition. At a recent public appearance Ahern was described as adopting a demeanour of martyred vindication. Some commentators see the public’s complaisance as evidence of the corrosive effect on the Irish nation as a whole of corruption at the top.



Denying the inevitability of falsehood in politics is seen as naïve – but there is, at the same time, tacit agreement that lying is wrong. It was said that British Minister of War John Profumo’s greatest rime wasn’t betraying his wife or compromising his country by sleeping with Christine Keeler- a call girl who was also the mistress of a Soviet spy. Rather, commentators took pains to assert that they were not concerned with his sexual morals, but with the fact that he lied to Parliament.



US Government officials told ABC News that they concocted the story of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) to give legal justification for war’ “We were not lying. It was just a matter of emphasis,” they asserted. Dr Samuel Johnson quoted Henry Wyatt’s definition of a  diplomat as “a man paid to lie abroad for his country”. (It is interesting that Johnson was writing about journalists and their tenuous relationship with the truth.)


The Office of Strategic Influence (OSI) was created in 2001 to lie overseas for the US, but after an outcry, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld quickly announced its closure. He was not telling the truth when he said the US government had stopped lying. The OSI’s duties were taken over by the Information Operations Task Force. “I’ll give you the corpse. You can have the name, but I’m gonna keep doing every single thing that needs to be done,” he said. Lies about lraq have led to over 85,000 real corpses.


George Bush Jnr., like Richard Nixon before him, used smears and lies to become president. Dan Rather is suing CBS for firing him for allegedly presenting forged evidence on revelations in 2004 about Bush’s National Guard years. Bush, the coward, was running against war hero Senator John Kerry, but the Republicans discredited Kerry’s greatest asset to compensate for Bush’s liability. Witnesses remember Bush drunk and never going near the National Guard while Kerry was being decorated for bravery in Vietnam. CBS wanted Bush to win and branded one of its own as a liar for exposing the truth.


Deviation from truth throws a spanner in the works of social interaction and business life. We can organise our lives more effectively if truth is the accepted currency. Johnson said that the devils themselves do not lie to one another, since even the society of hell could not subsist without the truth. His devils didn’t have the benefit of email, SMS and mobile phones. With modern technology, there is no excuse for wasting my time because someone has more important things to do than make our agreed meeting. If I tell someone that I am going to do something by a certain time, they can effect their arrangements in the confidence that I will deliver. Punctuality is the politeness of princes.


Broken promises have a domino effect. Society will not prosper if people lie and boost their egos by making promises which they have no intention of fulfilling. In his bestselling little book On Bullshit, Harry Frankfurt defines lies as statements that are not germane to the enterprise of describing reality, promises unconnected with an intention to fulfil. Lies arise when people are pushed or tempted to talk about things they know nothing about or when they don’t care about the truth.


Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe has said in LMD that “there was a time when the people were very vigilant, vibrant and alive to numerous issues affecting society … civil society seems to have gone to sleep. It could still be a powerful force if it came forward as one body.” His job is dealing with the big issue of corruption. We can all play a small part in affecting the environment in which corruption thrives by addressing the ‘what to do?’ mentality in daily life whenever a company disrespects us by dishonouring a commitment or a friend lets us down.


Defy the petty quotidian corruption of unreliability and negligence. Businesses and state departments will carry on lying and breaking promises if their ‘customers’ allow them to. Businesses will prosper if truth is respected and customers can rely on companies keeping their promises. Governments will thrive if they embrace openness and sincerity.