Saturday, September 27, 2008

Lying is Good For You!

You have probably been told that you can get away with crying wolf once, but come the third time, your lies will catch up with you and the wolf will have you for supper. I say it's broccoli, and I say to hell with it. This fable has more to do with foolishness than with lying, which I maintain is a sign of sophistication. After all, it is only the youngest children who tell no lies and by a very young age we have taught our children how to prevaricate.

I am not making a value judgment. In fact, I am removing any sense or good or bad from the act of telling lies. When the president tells you that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he's decided to misrepresent the truth for the greater good. He did a really good job getting lots of important people to believe him, but his little story got a lot of people killed. History is full of such lies that shouldn't have been told. What looks good to some can look bad to others, even when the lie is revealed as unpurified snake oil.

On the other hand, let's say someone asked me if I was looking for a job and I said I'm always looking for a job. And let's say the person asking was my boss who was expecting a lie along the lines of I'm happy, contented, and despite the vast array of job-seeking tools, listings, and information at my fingertips, haven't sent out a resumé since the day I was hired. The only surprising thing is that I didn't tell a lie when I should have.

Yes, your royal highness, that suit of invisible clothing is very becoming to your paunch. A child would never know to say the expected if it weren't true. The emperor has no clothes! Kids do say the darndest things, but we all grow up and learn to say the expected. We learn the art of smalltalk, the subtleties of the compliment, the politically correct (even when it's factually incorrect). Why do we do this?

We lie because we must. We even lie to ourselves. We are our own worst flatterers, unless we have a poor self-image, in which case we are our own worst enemies. The necessity for lying is two-fold. One is that not everything is black and white, on or off, meat or fish. There are algae and germs and all sorts of gray areas open to interpretation, which leads to dogma, differences of opinion, and divergent views of reality. Which is why one man's god is another's devil, why all capitalists are lying pigs, and all who disagree are enemies. It's the stuff of Orwellian worlds.

The other necessity is forced on us by human nature; we lie to gain some sort of advantage or avoid embarrassment. (I think these two amount to the same thing.) "I finished my homework, can I go out and play?" What do homework and play have to do with each other? Pretty much nothing, so this lie works, as long as it's not scrutinized too closely. We invite lying and then reinforce it every time we try to lay down the law in a controlling, yet arbitrary way. (I'm not going to get into a discussion of child-rearing tactics, here.)

It's not so surprising that children lie to their parents, but I'm amazed how often parents feel they must lie to their children. "You mean Santa Claus isn't real!" But the most amazing is how much grown-ups lie to each other, especially at work. There are any of terms for this - manipulation, hidden agenda, managing to an outcome - but it's all the same and it's all untruths.

My problem is one of naiveté. I believe in mutual respect, which greatly obviates the need for untruths. It works across age groups and office hierarchies, but it only works when it really is mutual. Otherwise you end up like Atahualpa, whose Incan empire was defeated by a puny force of Spaniards led by Pisaro, who was so cunning that Atahualpa couldn't believe he'd been defeated.

1 comment:

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