Reprinted from 01/26/13
Ever since the tale of young George Washington and the cherry tree became part of this nation’s folklore, honesty has been part of the values we pass on to our children as part of the American tradition. But what are “lies” per se?
They come in many colors.
Two sports luminaries presented us with a hard look at ourselves on this subject this past month, challenging us to define the differences between an outright lie and a fabrication.
World champion cyclist Lance Armstrong finally came clean on his use of strength enhancing drugs. Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o provided sports columnists and commentators with a titillating topic to fill time and space with “breaking news” and commentary about his mythical internet girl friend, and whether he had become a knowing participant in the tease created by others.
In both cases, lies were exposed. But the Armstrong case was a much bigger one. Why? Because it did more harm, to his sport, to his supporters, to his sponsors and to himself and his good deeds.
A Los Angeles Times writer who interviewed prominent psychologists subsequently on this subject came to the conclusion that lying is common, useful and pretty much universal. It’s part of our social fabric, and an important support for our self esteem. People do it several times a day, start at age 4, and get better with practice.
As people become older prevarications cover such things as going to the ball game when you should be at work, explaining why mother won’t send her child to the little girl’s birthday party down the street, or why a store employee’s cash register doesn’t balance at the end of the day. More seriously--why your representative doesn’t vote for a good bill opposed by his or her party.
My observation is that lying starts earlier than age 4, with babies that learn that a good squall will produce attention whether there is a real problem or not. They also no doubt learn it subconsciously when visitors gush about how cute they are, even immediately after they’ve gone through the trauma of birth.
By age 4, they’ve got the process down pretty cool, until parents and others put their foot down with some behavioral modification.
We’ve developed alternatives to the harsh word “lie,” to fit the occasion. They’re called euphemisms, and range from falsehoods and little white lies to misleading statements, whoppers and being creative. A legal term is “perjury,” apparently because it’s more professional to accuse a person of perjury instead of saying he’s a liar, a statement that often led to dueling in the old days.
A tall tale by anglers is known as a “fish story,” which is no serious crime at the bar or club meeting. It’s even expected.
A euphemism is a kind of a lie. It’s a cover term used to make an unpleasant truth seem less harsh (“He passed away”) or a perceived social indignity appear more palatable (“I have to go powder my nose”).
Euphemisms usually include language to impart a degree of modesty or the impression that the statement is backed by others, as the use of “we” instead of “I,” something President Obama did several times in his acceptance speech Monday. Editorial writers also do it to imply that everybody on the editorial staff is behind it, whether they are or not.
At other levels people refer to significant others, comfort station (the English use the term “loo”), out-sourcing, preowned (i.e. used) and au natural (with a French accent). Around Chino Valley we’re used to “correctional facility” instead of prison. During World War II “relocation centers,” were actually concentrations camps.
According to one psychologist quoted by the Times, men and women lie socially for different reasons, kind of a Mars vs. Venus way of seeking to make themselves likeable. Men lie to make themselves feel good, women to make their conversation partners feel good.
Some lies are very unsettling to a large number of people (don’t say most people unless you’ve taken an honest poll). An example is water board member Xavier Alvarez of Pomona who claimed he was a war veteran who had won the Medal of Honor. Similar lies had caused congress, at the behest of veterans and patriots, to pass the Stolen Valor Act. In the Alvarez case the supreme court said the law conflicted with the First Amendment. An effort to shape a law that will pass constitutional muster is still underway, and will probably succeed by putting it in the same class as yelling “fire” falsely in a crowded theater—that is, an act that causes harm to other people.
Politics is a great setting for fabrication, distortion, deceptiveness and myth (i.e. lies). Republicans shot themselves in the foot during the presidential debates, after which various fact-finding groups made hay. Democrats were saved by the fact that there was already a designated candidate. It’s not unusual for people to accept misleading information if it supports their beliefs and standing with others.
Some people get hung up lying to themselves, only it’s called “denial.” It can range from refusing to give up the belief that the president is a native born citizen to harboring disbelief that one can no longer drive safely after a certain age.
There are areas, too, where lying isn’t so bad after all. When people can’t handle the truth without being hurt, or get to the point where they can’t remember things, a white lie may not only avoid unnecessary anxiety but make them feel better. In cases of dementia, they won’t hold it against you because they won’t remember what you said, so relieve yourself of built in anxiety of using a falsehood.
Now, about “truth.” What is it? Usually a matter of personal or popular perception. Even science has a hard time with it. For 80 years Pluto was considered the ninth planet in our solar system, and school kids were given an “A” for remembering that. What’s next to go? The need for a debt ceiling or Einstein’s Theory of Relativity?