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Ethiopia: Why Do Ethiopians Trivialize Truth and Tolerate Lies?
January 23, 2017
By Tedla Woldeyohannes*

Recently I had an opportunity to speak at a conference in Washington D.C. The conference was a gathering of various Ethiopian political parties in the Diaspora. One of the main points of discussion at this conference was aimed at finding an answer to the question why opposition political parties do not effectively work together for a common goal and how they can come together to offer themselves as an alternative to the regime in power if the regime collapses or goes away sooner or later.  In this article,  I expand my talk at this conference where I offered what I take to be one plausible answer to the question raised at the conference, which I think has a much broader implication for our society, in the realm of politics and otherwise. In my view, one of the main reasons why we, Ethiopians, in general, suffer from a continuous lack of genuine cooperation to effectively work for the common good is because of the way we, generally, treat truth or the value of truth. That is, in my view, our society and culture trivializes truth and the value of truth. I take it that treating truth trivially, among other things, leads to some of the widespread problems in our country. This article develops this idea.

Trivializing Truth

We do not need to dwell on various theories of truth (there are several) in order to make progress with the issues I am interested to address in this piece. [I make use of the idea of truth as correspondence without comparing it to other theories since it is the most basic of idea of truth]. It is enough to note that all of us have some idea about what “truth” is without a help from theoretical, philosophical discussions of the nature of truth. If we do not have an idea of truth, we can hardly tell when someone tells us a lie. But almost all of us are able to tell when we are lied to unless the lie is too sophisticated to tell it is a lie initially. Consider the following for a basic idea of truth:  A claim or a statement is true means things are the way they are stated to be by the claim, or the statement. For example: A claim that there is a computer on your desk is true when there actually is a computer on your desk; otherwise false.  That is to say what the claim states matches reality.  For example, when you tell someone that there are four tables in your room when there are actually two tables, you are not telling the truth, especially if you know that there are four tables. Lying is closely connected to truth in the sense that it is knowingly telling the opposite of what is true. Lying, at the very least, involves telling something that is untrue when you know the truth. Lying is intentional as deception is. To report something falsely, by mistake, without intentionally misrepresenting the truth is not a deception or a lie. The moral of this reflection: All of us have a basic idea of what is truth and generally we are able to distinguish intentionally made false statements or lies from true statements. We do not need to teach even young children about what truth is, though we teach them to value truth, that lying is bad, and such things. We have a cognitive capacity to recognize truth, or what is true, and to distinguish truth from falsehood that no body taught us. No need to digress for further philosophical discussion for the purpose of this piece.

Now to one of the main points of this article. In my view, in our Ethiopian culture many people do not care about truth or the value of truth for its own sake; rather, many people care about what benefit they can get if they tell the truth about many issues in life. This mindset, which is widely shared, makes it hard for people to value truth or to care about truth for its own sake or to stand for truth when standing for truth is important. To care about truth for its own sake means valuing truth and speaking the truth whether one gets something or not as a result of speaking the truth.  Inquisitive minds generally are inclined and want to know the truth about anything of interest to them, for the sake of knowing, period. And such minds speak the truth, all things considered, when needed because speaking the truth is a good thing, period. But this does not mean that caring about truth for its own sake is always incompatible with caring about truth for its value in the sense of helping us get what we want. This latter is valuing truth as a means or a tool for some other end or goal. That is fine. But valuing truth only to gain something is problematic. An indifference to truth or caring little about truth creates a mindset that discourages pursuit of truth, openness to truth, a desire for intellectual integrity. In my view, lack of a desire for intellectual integrity commodifies truth and this in turn results in trivializing the value of truth. All of these things are rampant in our Ethiopian culture.

Tolerating Lies

One consequence of caring about truth or valuing truth only as a means to get something can and does lead to easy lying. Lying becomes easier when a person cares about truth only for what one can gain if that person tells the truth or not. Note that in most cases people lie to gain something.  With the exception of pathological or habitual liars who find lying so easy that lying becomes their second nature, generally, people lie when they want to get something that they would not get if they tell the truth. When a culture like ours does not oppose lying, which is rampant in our society, it is not hard to see the larger consequence for such a shared culture. Anyone who knows our culture and interpersonal communications knows how often people who lie about this or that can get away with the lie without being challenged. The extent of tolerance for lies in our culture extends, for example, to even Christians who believe that lying is a “sin” but who often refuse to challenge lying in their community. I mention Christians as an example to show how much pervasive lying is in the Ethiopian community. Christians and other religious people who believe lying is sin should be at the forefront in challenging people who lie to them, but that rarely happens to be the case. Lying need not be seen as a “sin” in order to show that it is bad. Whether lying is “sin” or not, it is bad, all things considered. At any rate, tolerance to lies has a negative consequence which is bad for a society.

Suspicion, Lack of Trust, and Secrecy

When people realize that lying is widely tolerated, if and when they lie they also tend to believe that others are lying to them even if that is not the case. That means, people who lie become suspicious of others often thinking that the other person is also lying to them. This gives rise to an attitude that encourages treating others with suspicion. Suspicion of others and what people hear could be a lie rather than the truth about this or that also gives rise to a culture of secrecy. Besides suspicion, secrecy is one of those widely shared cultural traits among Ethiopians. Note that there are good reasons at times to value secrecy or withholding some information from others in a country where telling the truth can cost lives. I am making this point for the following reason: The kind of government we have, now and in the past, especially the previous regime before this, forced us to,  rightly, believe that  the government can do harm if it finds out information about people the government targets for political reasons. Having said this, I am not suggesting that the widespread culture of suspicion and secrecy is only due to the government’s treatment of the citizens. The government’s treatment of citizens is an exception when it comes to an explanation for why secrecy and suspicion are widespread in our culture. I argued above, in general, it is an attitude to the value of truth that leads to a culture in which lying becomes easy and tolerated, and that gives rise to suspicion of others, especially what they say which encourages secrecy.

Truth and Character

Let us briefly consider a connection between how we value truth can affect our character. It is not controversial to suggest that a person who does not care much about truth would not care much about personal integrity. Personal integrity and honesty are among virtues anyone desires to cultivate. By “virtues” I mean good character traits.  Obviously, people who demonstrate personal integrity and honesty are admirable and rightly admired. But in a culture that significantly encourages dishonesty and lies, honest people who aspire to be persons of integrity are considered threats to those who do not want to lose what they could get by choosing to lie and deceive others. To value truth for its own sake, whether one gains something or not for telling the truth, is a good reason for a person to choose to be truthful. Truthfulness is a virtue by itself and also a truthful person can be faithful, dependable, or reliable. Even those who choose to lie and engage in deception would not, in their right mind, believe that liars and deceptive and dishonest people are dependable or reliable as people. So far, we have seen a sketch of reasoning that shows   that one’s relation to truth can and does have implications for one’s character. Lying and deception are character flaws, but these character flaws have roots, among others, in one’s treatment of truth and how much one cares about the value of truth—very little.  Those who care about truth demonstrate character traits such as truthfulness, honesty, and personal integrity. This reasoning shows that our cognitive life is deeply connected to our moral life and our character.


Let us briefly illustrate the above discussion by taking concrete examples. Let us take the Ethiopian government first. Lying in countless ways is the modus operandi for the Ethiopian government. Why is that the case? As anyone familiar with the Ethiopian government knows it is practically impossible for the government to remain in power without the power of the gun if the regime tells the truth about so many crimes it commits against the citizens. Note that I argued above that a lie is intentional and people generally lie to get something they would not get if they told the truth. If the regime tells the truth, for example, about the human rights it violates, the actual number of people killed by the regime, and the actual reasons why it jails those who are critical of the regime, including journalists and opposition party members, etc., there is no way for such a government to stay in power without resorting to violence. Hence, lying in order to deceive and to cover up what is real, is its modus operandi, or its mode of operation or its default position. The regime would tell the truth when it is convenient and when it would not lose much by telling the truth. Or, the regime would tell the truth sometimes when it is useful for the government to tell the truth not because those in government care about truth and value truth for its own sake. Now, we need to ask why this is the case. One plausible answer emerges from what I argued above. That is the government is largely a reflection of the culture of the society it comes from. Or, in other words, the Ethiopian government is a mirror image of how the Ethiopian people tolerate lies, or how little truth and truthfulness are valued in the culture. I claimed that there is a widespread mindset of tolerance to lying in our culture. It is only beneficial for those in power to make use of what is widely tolerated in their own society—a disposition to lie about small and big things mostly without being challenged.
With so much lying by the Ethiopian government it is nearly impossible, for example, for opposition party leaders to trust the government in order to come to the table to discuss political options for the future of the country. Some opposition party leaders would join the government [as it is happening these days] for discussion not because they believe that the regime is truthful. They can do so for their own reasons, which would lead to doing nothing significant for the future of the country because such political leaders are playing by the rule the regime has set for them—which has no genuine room for any genuine reform of the deeply corrupt government. At the end of the day, how can anyone trust a government that has practically eliminated a genuine political space for opposition parties either by jailing their leaders or when many have left the country for life in exile?

Unfortunately, there is a much similar explanation as to why it is hard for opposition party leaders to come to a table to work together for a common goal. As I remarked in my recent talk at the Washington DC conference of the Diaspora based Ethiopian opposition parties, it is hard for opposition parties to come together for a common purpose when there is a trust deficit or when there is not enough trust. When members and leaders of opposition parties are suspicious of one another and engage in secrecy and lack transparency, it is hard to come together for a common purpose. I am not suggesting that the points I raised in this article totally, or exhaustively explain the reason why it has become very hard for opposition parties to come together to work for a common good, but the issues I raised play a key role, in my view, in explaining failures among the opposition parties to come together to work together. At the very least, trust is essential for people to come together to work for a common good.
A related explanation for continued failures of the opposition parties to work together can be due to misplaced priorities. If and when the interest of the people of Ethiopia, not the interest of the personalities behind various opposition parties, is the main and non-negotiable priority for opposition parties, the rest is for them to work on a strategy how to get to a mutually held goal and compromise on the strategy going forward. So long as party priorities are not aligned around a non-negotiable common purpose, it would be hard for opposition parties to come together.  Oftentimes, opposition parties fail when their leaders fail mostly on character flaws or when the leaders end up pursuing their own selfish interests. This takes us back to issues about lack of personal integrity and honesty and lack of transparency. These flaws can partly be traced back to people’s relation to truth or how they value of truth and how this can lead to lying or tolerating lies and being dishonest and deceptive.
One can give a lot more examples to show how a widely shared culture of trivializing truth or a widely shared mindset that does not value truth and truthfulness for its own sake can easily lead to lying and to tolerance to lying. Tolerance to lying gives rise to a culture of suspicion and secrecy which eventually leads to lack of trust among people. I used as an illustration what happens in our politics to make points about the value of truth and the problem of  valuing truth only for what truth telling can do for us. Or, I argued that attaching the value of truth to benefits people can get if they spoke truth can lead to problems that eventually manifest in character flaws and these in turn deeply damage a political space which is an arena of moral agency. As moral agents, humans cannot escape being judged by their character and all those who seek leadership positions, including those who are in leadership positions like the Ethiopian government, can only succeed in their leadership to the extent that they succeed as responsible moral agents. It is nearly impossible to expect any meaningful change from the Ethiopian government when it comes to holding a meaningful dialogue with opposition parties. However, it is also an imperative for the opposition political parties to play a role of responsible moral agency going forward. Responsible moral agency is not an abstract talk; rather, it is something that can be demonstrated in real life when those who seek leadership positions first demonstrate that they care about truth, that they will not tolerate lying in their own lives and in others, and  when they lead others with a life of  personal integrity and transparency.

In the final analysis, the cost of trivializing truth and tolerating lies is monumental, both on a personal and on a national level. I leave my readers, especially those who aspire to hold leadership positions to bring about a much needed change in Ethiopian politics to ask themselves the following questions and to answer them honestly and to the best of their ability: Do I really care about truth? Do I really care about being a truthful person? Do I really care about personal integrity and transparency? Do I lie for small or big things to gain something in return? Do I challenge people who lie to me when I know someone is lying to me? Am afraid of challenging a lie when I know it is a lie? Why am I afraid to challenge a lie if I am afraid to do so? Do I put the interest of the Ethiopian people above my own interest and the interest of a party I am a leader? Do I challenge selfish party members and leaders who pursue their own interests at the expense of the interest of the Ethiopian people? Is a party I am a part better than the ruling party in terms of standing for moral character of its members and leaders? How can I and my colleagues prove to the Ethiopian people that we are better leaders who can lead fellow Ethiopians than the ruling party? Can I and my colleagues say “no” to the temptation of seeking power for the sake of being in power and instead show our people that having political power is all about serving fellow citizens? Do I really believe that power is not the goal of my political aspiration but an instrument to serve others? If Ethiopians are looking for a role model in Ethiopian politics, who do you think is such a role model or such role models? Can you be such a role model, if not now, but in the long run? I hope that these questions, among others, can help for personal reflections for those who are seeking leadership positions in politics. Also, those of us who are not seeking positions of leadership in politics can make our considered judgment as to who is truly in a proper political leadership position in Ethiopia for the right reasons and who is in such leadership positions for the wrong reasons.
Tedla Woldeyohannes has most recently taught philosophy at St. Louis University and Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, Illinois and can reached at twoldeyo@slu.edu

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