“Everybody Lies” — But normalizing it is wrong

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Apr 182023

Politicians lie. Trump lies. Criminals lie. But now I’m repeating myself. The point is that lying is human and it wouldn’t be central to every single ethos since the species became social if it weren’t. The quotation, however, come out of the mouth of fictional doctor Gregory House—itself… a lie, of a sort.

Oh the Lies, they are a changin’

Maybe it’s the excess or, if not excess certainly exuberance of the the lying going on in the first quarter of the 21st-century. Maybe the sheer volume and velocity of lying going on; maybe it’s the shamelessness and hypocrisy. Something has, however, triggered attention to be especially intensely directed toward lying. Even if the lying is banal or not even there, we see it. Some of us are creating conspiracies out of phantom lying. (Or maybe it’s real lying but merely pales by comparison to what we see every single day from those in positions of trust. There’s usually a pretty reasonable core to every conspiracy theory. )

But let’s get back to lying. There can be no doubt that it is capturing our attention. Media “Pinocchios” and flagrant political/corporate liars abound. Whether that is representative of anything more than that class of people (and by class I do not mean socio-economic, only “cluster”) is unclear. Though there is certainly a lot of evidence in “exaggerated” social media posts to suggest that the problem is wider spread.

Pinocchio is the archetype for lies that are visibly evident.

I will concede that it is entirely possible there may not be a widespread lying problem. It could be that the big lies (not just The Big Lie) are overrepresented and the vast majority do not actively create, generate, and propagate their own lies over and above what has been typical and normal through human history. In conceding this though, there is no accounting at all for the obvious gullibility and rampant willingness for people to believe the lies they are told and repeat them.

I’m sure it’s splitting hairs to prosecute them as liars and conveniently unnecessary since they are fools and maybe idiots anyway. And, in point of fact, could be liars in their own right in a much smaller arena that doesn’t grab wide attention—probably because they’re not placed appropriately for it to be seen. (I’m still going with fools and idiots. I’m a believer in Occam’s Razor.)

There are a lot of cognitive biases in play for anybody (and by “anybody”, I mean practically “everybody”) focusing on how much lying is going on. Despite the fact that it may have always been that way, we may be noticing it as a result of thinking errors like:

  • Confirmation bias — we see what we want to see and what supports our conclusion. More people are lying, we believe, so we notice more lying.
  • Base Rate fallacy — Essentially thinking the specific is the norm. We have noticed a lot of lying going on, so we jump to the conclusion that this is the broad norm: everyone is lying a lot and egregiously.
  • Illicit Transference — Applying the specific to the general and vice versa. Together with our base rate misunderstanding, we attribute specific (Ted Cruz) to the norm.
  • Frequency illusion — Once you notice something, it’s everywhere. The volume and voracity of lying from some parts is front of mind, so now we see it in everyone.

So, there are reasons in our heads. BUT, it’s not all in our heads.

Everybody lies. I lie.

Sometimes its banal, like when I say, “Doing great,” in response to the obligatory, “How’re you doing?” greeting instead of getting into my prevailing concerns or woes. Sometimes it’s significant but I weigh the lie as better than the alternative. There is absolutely no win in telling your spouse, “No, I think those pants make your ass look extra wide.” Nor is there any real point in pointing out to your child that his rendering of his recital piece made dogs howl. Just say it’s great, go for ice cream, and move on.

Some lies are obviously wrong in every respect, not least in law. Fibbing during sworn testimony is plain wrong. It is unredeemable lying. And could land you in jail. Even if you get away with it in the moment, the truth will out eventually. For those who are religious, I’ll point out that lying to God or God’s representative on earth is also a very strict no-no.

Between these extremes are shades of gray(son). It is here that theologians, philosophers, ethicists, lawyers, and so many others can wile away their days. And to what end? It is extremely unlikely that a definitive rule can or will be set. If for no other reason than the lying is contextual and other values come into play. It is almost certain that any choice on lying will end up bumping into and having a significant impact on some other (possibly moral) matter. (Is a “negligable”—in the sense of nobody being materially harmed—lie, in the service of a greater good, righteous?) This warrants a separate thought; let’s explore righteous lies just a bit.

By the transparency zeitgeist motivations and demands for personal freedom and uninhibited knowledge of everything, a national leader that makes a decision to keep something secret is hunted down politically at least and pilloried. After all (s)he knew and kept it from us, and lied about knowing it, and well, we really wanted to know because, we have freedom and agency and the right to know and… You get the idea.

If that secret saved thousands of lives, kept the economy stable, and let the country or the world get about its business was it worth it? Just because a relatively few wanted to know and felt that they should be part of the “need to know” crowd, but the vast majority didn’t need to know, wouldn’t know what to do when they found out, and knowing or not knowing made no difference to them anyway, does that make radical transparency alright? Does it make the lie less righteous?

This is territory that the vast majority of the population is ill equipped to trek. What the vast majority ought to be interested in is whether lies affect them (negatively) and what that does to their level of trust in the teller of those lies.

The real concern ought not to be on whether somebody is lying any more than on whether (s)he is speaking English, French, or Mandarin. It is something to be accepted, embraced, understood, and evaluated. That allows attention to be put on the purpose. What is the purpose and the outcome? Is the lie told to take unfair advantage? Is it to save another’s feelings? Is it for the benefit of the teller or someone else? Does it break the law? Does it do harm? If you swing that way, does it break a Covenant with your Lord?

We’re too focused on the lying and paying insufficient attention to the reasons and outcome.

None of which is to let the big orange Pinocchio off the hook for his LIFETIME of lying. It is to say that after so many years, we know it’s a lie. We (and by “we” I mean those who are followers) need to look at the end for which lying was the means. In his personal life, in his business life, in his sporting life, in his political life. In all these ways and for all these purposes the lying was for self-dealing and illegal, unfair advantage.

Enough said. Everybody lies. (Some more than others.)

For more thoughts and ideas check both other posts and my oeuvre.

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