(Watching the political events wherein the candidates gleefully call each other liars at every opportunity, I decided to re-post this 'defense' essay on our times, the post-truth society.)
I’ve lied a few times in my life. I probably lie to myself everyday so I can live with the bad habits that have a stranglehold. Perhaps that’s existential lying. Remember that line from A Few Good Men? “The truth! You can’t handle the truth.” Well, I probably can’t. I know I can’t. And what the heck is the truth and is it going to make my life better?
Disclaimer: I didn’t mean for this post to take this dark anti-values turn but it seems to have it’s own agenda.
Pamela Meyer who gives a slap-in-the-face wake up call in her TED lecture on lying, feels we are a post truth society and that even babies fake cry, stop to see who is coming and then continue crying. Bottom line, we are all born liars; it is part of evolution and the smarter we are, the more we lie. Ms. Meyer also points out that lying is a cooperative act. A lie has no power until someone agrees to accept it (even if that someone is you).
Once a cop stopped me for speeding and I told him the truth: “I was rushing to the doctor for a perceived emergency.” The policeman believed me and I was confused. I was so ready to lie to a speeding charge that I lost sight of the truth. According to Ms. Meyer, we are deeply ambivalent about the truth. We are against lying but we are covertly for it. Even Koko the gorilla who learned to communicate so charmingly with sign language blamed her pet kitten for ripping the sink out of the wall.
Here’s the good news: although we are all liars not all lies are harmful. Lying is often used for social dignity. Ms. Meyer says we are lied to from 10 to 200 hundred times a day. She says strangers lie to each other 3 times within the first ten minutes of meeting.
“Is that your Porsche?”
“Why is that man driving it away?”
“That’s my brother. I told him he could drive it.”
“You two don’t look anything alike.”
Of course lying has an evil corrupting face when it undermines the economy or a government. Corporate fraud has ruined the lives of many and undermined the financial health of the country. Think Enron or Bernie Madoff. In her book, Liespotting, Ms. Meyer shows you techniques for detecting a lie, especially helpful If someone is trying to dupe you out of your life savings (if you still have life savings.)
Some telltale phrases: “In all candor.” or “To tell the truth,” She says, the more we lie the more formal we get in conversation. My favorite Liespotting phrase describes the inappropriate smile after a very sober statement. We all remember President Nixon’s inappropriate smile when he was delivering a mea culpa message. Ms. Meyer calls this “duping delight”. The speaker is pleased with himself for lying so brilliantly. A suspect might describe the bloody death of four people, deny his involvement and finish with a big grin.
Henry Oberlander, the most accomplished con man of all time who could have undermined the entire banking system of the world, had a rule explaining why he was so successful. Henry said that everybody is willing to give you something for whatever it is they are hungry for. Ms. Meyer agrees. If you don’t want to be deceived you have to know what it is you are hungry for, she warns. We are hungry for better looks, height, wealth, intelligence, social standing. "Lying bridges the gap between what we wish we were and what we are." That sounds about right.