Now that the primaries are finally over and the candidates for president have been determined, I’ve been thinking about the upcoming presidential campaign — thinking of it with real dread, since it is sure to be as nasty a campaign as we’ve ever experienced. It will be filled with slurs, accusations and counter-accusations, and certainly lies of all kinds. This is nothing new, of course, but I expect it to be even worse than usual, with the birthers, for example, who cannot accept the most evident proof finding yet new and creative ways to lie about Obama’s citizenship, and the implications about Romney’s various perceived flaws rising to new heights of hysteria. That there will be lies, more lies, as well as statistics is a foregone conclusion.
Lying is an inborn skill, universally practiced. It takes many forms. Sometimes it's the careful evasion, sometimes the suggestion falsi, sometimes the out and out statement of an untruth. I doubt that there is anyone in the world who has never lied in some way — at least in a small way. There is a heavy weight of opinion against lying — truth-telling is a primary moral principle — but nevertheless, we all lie at one time or another. Even if we don't make outright false statements, our evasions or half-truths convey our lies. The reasons for lying are as many as the occasions. We lie for gain or to avoid disaster, or to maintain the image, the facade, which we all have. That facade is also somewhat of a lie, as it can be at best only a partial truth.
Biblical morality is very interesting in regard to lying in the stories in the Jewish covenant or Old Testament as we are used to calling it. The Ten Commandments, we are told, cover all possible moral issues, but they are rather specific about the lies that you may not tell, allowing one to lie about other things, I assume. They say that you may not bear false witness. That is, you cannot lie about someone else. Also, you must not commit perjury. That is, they say that you must not take the name of God in vain, which means not that you shouldn't blaspheme, but that to swear to a lie in the name of God is to blaspheme.
Otherwise lying seems rather to be encouraged than barred in the Torah. Abraham, the first patriarch, lied twice about his relationship to Sarah, his wife, and got money and goods for having done it. Jacob, the father of all the founders of the 12 tribes,Israelhimself, was given his brother's birthright through deception. They tried to justify it by the story that Esau sold it to him for a mess of pottage, but I always thought that was rather thin, and they never tried to conceal the fact that he lied to his father Isaac in order to get it.
Despite this Biblical support for the practice of lying and its present ubiquity, it is universally frowned on to the extent that we even lie to ourselves about its existence. We have set up a culture, perhaps a world, in which appearance is far more important than reality, and when the appearances cannot be kept up because the lies have become too obvious, we feel utterly betrayed.
The reason that lying is so universal is that it has great short-term rewards. It is a natural act. We think of children as the only truly honest people among us, but they lie automatically and naturally to avoid punishment or blame. The childish honesty which is so shattering is based on lack of knowledge of what should be decently covered up or ignored. As soon as they become aware of what will be approved or disapproved, they lie with the rest of us.
It is truth-telling, not lying which is a learned activity, though certainly there are reasons for and refinements of lying which take a great deal of sophistication. We learn it partly because it is useful. Benjamin Franklin said that honesty is the best policy, which seems a rather mercantile expression of a moral precept. It is argued that he was quite wrong, that if policy rather than morality is the issue, dishonesty is far more materially productive, but I think that, taking the long view,Franklinwas correct. In order to establish either personal or professional relationships, there must be some basis of trust. What is that old saying? "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." If yourmodus operandiis one of dishonesty, you have to be ready to travel. Long-term success, long-term gains, long-term relationships, must be built on the trust that a basic honesty brings. Only in the short run can dishonesty be a gainful policy.
Truth-telling is a strong moral precept buttressed by strong practicality. It has everything going for it except a natural instinct for immediate self-preservation and the fact that it is so seldom practiced. In fact, to practice it is assumed to risk professional or social suicide. When it is so rare, that may be a correct assumption.
I am not talking about the brutal, let-it-all-hang-out sort of truth-telling. I don't think you should look at someone in a new dress and tell her that it makes her look 20 pounds heavier, even if it does, nor that you should let everyone in on the intimate details of your boudoir. There was an interesting article in Newsweek by Edward Janko some time ago, in which he lauded Hamlet's advice to his mother, "Assume a virtue if you have it not," and suggested that some restraint and mild hypocrisy might be a good thing. He made a great deal of sense. However, the assumption of virtue is a far cry from the downright chicanery practiced in order to assure success and avoid blame, and the expectation that success will validate the chicanery.
Up to a point, indeed, there is some indication that it does. People seem almost to want to be hoodwinked as long as the lies told them are pleasant and everything seems to be going along as they would have it. It is only when the reek of untruth rises in their nostrils until it can no longer be ignored that they scream their indignation and sense of betrayal. Their betrayers then tend to be surprised and hurt. They assumed that everyone knew what they meant all along, that they were doing nothing that everyone else doesn't do, and everyone had approved the results in the past. They forget or never know that many people suffer amnesia and blindness about unpleasant realities. We want to believe some things so badly that it is only when it is impossible to do so any longer that we will stop believing, but when that happens the whole pack of cards tumbles down on us to our great shame and anger.
I think about my former father-in-law's reaction to the Watergate revelations of which we have been hearing so much since the death of President Ford. He had voted for Nixon and felt terribly betrayed by him, vowing never to vote for another Republican. Nixon had been in the public eye for a long time, and he had been observing him for a lot more years than I had, but somehow Nixon's professions were so much more agreeable to him than the reality of Nixon's past behavior that he could forget it all — even after having been reminded, as I assure you he was. I suspect that Nixon's sense of hurt and betrayal was just as genuine as that of my father-in-law. People had accepted his proven lies and dirty tricks for years, and then, when he had simply continued to behave in the same way that they had previously accepted, they turned on him. I have often wondered what finally made it all impossible to ignore. Even when it had reached that point there were still those who argued that Nixon was simply doing what everybody does. Perhaps people would have accepted that argument if he had not made his clumsy attempts at covering up what he had done in an effort to maintain a patently false image of integrity. "Everybody's doing it" seems to be the favorite excuse for dishonorable actions.
People are often lied to because they seem to prefer lies to a bald and ugly truth. They prefer to believe certain things whether those things are true or not, they will believe whoever tells them those things, and if they are lying refuse to believe that they are lying. They will continue to believe the lies until it is impossible to continue to do so, and having believed so long increases their anger and hurt at the betrayal.
Sometimes they want to believe so badly that no facts can change their minds. We always find it easier to believe the things that we agree with. They seem plausible and we accept them as true, until it is proven otherwise. Sometimes no amount of proof is enough. The accusations of the Swift Boat Veterans against Senator Kerry when he was running for president were shown to be pure fabrication, but there are people who not only believed them then but will continue to believe them until they die. No amount of honest refutation will ever convince them. Again, the statement that there is a proven, or even probable, link between abortion and the incidence of breast cancer has been shown to be false again and again, yet it is stated as proven truth with questionable authorities cited from careful internet research. Just as you can find justification for any position on any issue in the Bible if you look long enough, you can find support for your point of view, whatever it is, on the web. It is what we most desire to believe that we should view with the deepest skepticism.
Truth-telling is a basic moral precept. Without truth there can be no trust, and without trust there can be no civilization. Some years ago I went to what was one of the most interesting leadership training events I ever attended. It was in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The leader of the event was talking about the required characteristics of a leader and one of the most important was trustworthiness. He was challenged to explain how President Clinton could be a leader since he was clearly not trustworthy. His response was that as a leader he had shown himself very trustworthy indeed, doing pretty much what he had told the electorate he would do. His private and personal trustworthiness, he argued, was none of our business. What he was impeached for was lying under oath, and given his extraordinary extraversion his mouth began running ahead of his brain, so when he was asked an improper question he answered it simply, naturally and untruthfully. As I’m sure he has told himself thousands of times, he should simply have refused to answer a question that had no relevance to the primary investigation. He might have drawn himself up like any good southern gentleman and said, “Sir, I refuse to answer a question that besmirches the reputation of a respectable young woman.” That was the only piece of advice I think my father ever gave my brothers about relationships: you never say anything that would harm a woman’s reputation, and if you have to, lie. Despite those whose hatred for Clintonis so obsessive, the majority of the rest of the country seemed to agree that as lies go, even one under oath, this one was forgivable.
Lies come naturally. We are surrounded by them in politics, in advertising, in social amenities. We tell them ourselves, believe them ourselves, use them to make our relationships more pleasant, sustain our images, enhance our respectability. I would not even say that all lies should be done away with. Many of them are pleasant, and I can even think of occasions where they might be lifesaving. Lying is even a reasonable response on occasion to our instinct for survival. We must learn to distinguish, then, between the lies that help and those that harm, since we can never do away with them entirely. We lie almost as instinctively as we breathe, but we must learn the danger, learn to distinguish our own tendency to believe pleasant lies, and we must still hold truth-telling as a moral imperative. The learned response of truthfulness in things of moment takes courage, but it must be required of us and of our leaders so that we can again learn the trust that must be given to our leaders and to one another. We need one another for many things, but we cannot live in this world without trust in integrity and honor — our own and that of those with whom we live.