“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.”
If you had to pick just one Commandment as an example of why the Ten Commandments should be used as a system of law, I would choose this one. I know others would go with the Sixth Commandment, or possibly the Eighth Commandment, but for my money it just doesn’t get any better than this. For every other Commandment I can find some flaw, some reason to say “yes, but…”, yet this one is unique in that I believe it is not only excellent as personal advice but essential for a functional judiciary.
We have in America (and there are in many other countries as well) what is referred to as an adversarial judiciary system, one that relies in large part on people being honest about what they have seen or heard and even what they believe. While there are many critics of such a system (and the U.S. judicial system in particular), it is generally thought to be superior to the inquisitorial alternative. Certainly I believe it is, and regardless of which type of system you use, in either case false testimony would be damaging to the proceedings.
In the broader context of society, I also think that it is worth keeping this Commandment in mind in daily life. I can’t help remembering as I reflect on this one time when I was much younger, and in a fit of jealousy I said some very untrue things about someone else; they cost me a good and close friend, and it is one of only three things I have done that I deeply regret. Words have power, and we forget that at our peril.
But is there an intersection between these two things that perhaps is the step too far? Is there a gray area that we have given over to politicians that is of society but not governance? I would argue that there is, and more to the point I would argue that it is an area that is not only expanding but being abused both more frequently and more frivolously as time marches on. I am speaking in particular of Congressional hearings.
The first thing that comes to mind when I think of any sort of Congressional hearings is the House Un-American Activities Committee. Not only is the idea of grilling people about their personal lives and politics repugnant to me, it seems antithetical to the very idea of what America stands for. More to the point of the Ninth Commandment, like the Salem Witch Trials that Arthur Miller compares them to in The Crucible, there was a strong compulsion on witnesses to implicate others, even if it meant doing so under false pretenses. Once again, it would seem to be the antithesis of what America and our government should stand for.
Over the decades Congressional hearings have delved into other areas of concern ranging from Watergate to Iran-Contra, and those have been important matters that needed investigation. Did Toyota need investigating by Congress? Arguably, since there was a Federal agency involved, although I think that was more posturing for headlines than any real effective action. But the one that bothers me most is when Congress starts investigating steroid use in athletes.
Aside from basically encouraging perjury (“hey, how would you like the opportunity to destroy your own career? No?”), I don’t see what point there is in Congress even being involved in this. Again, it seems more a matter of either pandering for the cameras or, even more ominously, honestly believing they have a right and a mandate to be involved in every aspect of American life simply because they are… well… politicians. And we put them there.
So yes, I believe very much that you shouldn’t tell lies about other people. It has cost me personally and it costs us as a society. But I also believe we need to think very long and hard about when and how we ask the sorts of questions that might elicit lies from others. There are some things that are properly none of our business, or if they are our business, there are proper forums for handling them. When the cost for telling the truth outweighs the risk for telling the lie, people will lie. And in that case, how much of the burden for that lie falls on the ones who put them in the position of feeling like they needed to lie in the first place?