Lies have a bad rap. We were taught that lying is a bad thing, morally wrong, and corrosive to trust, yet we find ourselves lying and lied to every day of our lives. The hypocrisy leaves us struggling with our declared honesty and waning voice of conscience.
But lies aren’t inherently evil. A lie could be used for good, as easily as for bad, so why not adopt a more honest relationship with the lies we tell.
What is a lie?
Any statement that pretends to give an accurate description of something, and is not, is a lie.
This is the case no matter how cute the nonsense, or whether the person telling the lie knows it’s a lie or not. This means a person can tell a lie, but not be a liar, i.e someone who habitually, and with mal-intent, communicates to mislead.
It also means that any information knowingly withheld is also a lie. That’s because the person withholding the information knows the omission matters.
Like fish in the sea, our daily communications teem with lies, so much so that our language distinguishes more words and phrases for lies and lying than it does for truth and truth-telling.
A quick glance at the Thesaurus reveals the following synonyms for falsehood: bamboozle, beguile, betray, bluff, camouflage, cheat, cloak, conceal, cry wolf, disguise, dissemble, dissimulate, delude, double-cross, dupe, exaggerate, fable, fib, fleece, fool, hoodwink, invent, kid, lead astray, mask, misdirect, misinform, mislead, misrepresent, deceive, obfuscate, perjure, posture, prevaricate, pull a fast one, pull the wool over, rip-off, slant, snow, stiff, sting, story, take-in, trick, and varnish.
Revealed, we describe lies as white, damn, pants-on-fire, whoppers, walloper, untruths, fiction, deception, and falsity. Quite a tribute to our mendacious tendency.
Truth, by comparison, has fewer and much less colorful expressions: accuracy, actual, authenticity, axiom, certainty, correctness, dope, exact, fact, genuine, gospel, infallibility, inside-track, legitimate, lily-white, low-down, make a case, maxim, naked-truth, nitty-gritty, plain-talk, principle, real, right, scoop, score, unvarnished, veracity, verisimilitude, whole/real/true story. That’s almost two to one by my superficial scrape of a thesaurus, but note how few of the truth synonyms refer to the act of telling the truth. They are mostly nouns; the synonyms for lies are mostly verbs. I’m not suggesting that we lie much more than we tell the truth, but that we lie a lot more than we say we do.
White lies and damn lies
Clearly, there’s a difference between “Santa knows if you’re naughty or nice” and
“I never had sex with that woman… your sister … who you’ve always hated… who couldn’t wait to use me to get back at you; who was a freak in bed, because it never happened.”
The Santa lies are harmless and persist because they bring wonder and joy to a child’s life. Other lies, like the ones that led up to the Iraq war, have devastating consequences.
And there’s a world of grey in between.
It’s clear that there are some lies we should accept even actively participate in, and others we should not. To understand where to draw the line, we should consider why people tell lies in the first place.
Lying is useful.
- It helps you get what you want. “ Your body … of course not. It’s your mind that attracts me.”
- It helps you avoid what you don’t want. “No officer I haven’t had a drink all night.
- It makes people feel good about themselves. “ Yes, it was my idea.” Steve Jobs was notorious for claiming other people’s ideas as his own.
- It helps people save face, “Sorry I’m late … the traffic was bad.”
- It can create order, as in “Everyone can get all their money from the bank anytime they choose.”
- It can create obedience “You’ll be sentenced to eternal hellfire if you don’t follow His laws.”
- It can create wonder and optimism. “Santa Claus is on his way.”
- It can heal rifts or bring enemies together. “You know Hillary, in private, the Donald has always spoken highly of you.”
I’m certainly not advocating that the lies above stand on moral high ground, just that they explain why we lie: it allows us an advantage the truth won’t allow, and many entertain and inspire e.g. “Once upon a time there lived ….”
The truth is not always helpful
Indeed, the truth often doesn’t help you take care of your concerns e.g. building relationships, self-esteem, self-confidence, avoiding conflict etc.
Sometimes honest answers like
“You look 52,”
“Yes your ass does look fat in those jeans,”
“Here’s why I’m breaking up with you …”
only serves to hurt feelings, blame, humiliate and make people feel shame and resentment. Telling the truth about what (you think) someone said or did may escalate a heated argument into a fist fight, or worse. And it might be better not to know your biological mother was a prostitute.
The truth is often better suited to punish, rather than motivate or change behaviour. Telling the truth about a bad performance to a vulnerable teen may crush their self-confidence and stop them from ever becoming very good. Simon Cowell wields the truth as a cudgel to stop people from pursuing a path they have no talent for. In some cases he’s wrong, but in most cases he’s right.
Telling the truth all the time is boring
I know I’ll get flak for this one, but it’s no lie. If everyone told the truth all the time, life would be boring. There could never be mystery, intrigue, heartbreak and injustice, and while you may say,“ But wait! Those things are terrible!” You’d be missing a very important aspect of life: duality makes experience possible. While love may really be all there is, our experience of love comes from experiencing it’s opposite. There is no tall without short, no good without bad and no right without wrong.
Without lies, we’d have no soap operas, detective shows, politics, comedies. Indeed no fiction.
Oh, and no surprise parties.
The lie about lying is that it’s necessarily bad or wrong to tell a lie.
Our indoctrination into this lie is what allows us to shame anyone caught in a lie, regardless of the context in which it was told; it’s what has us needlessly conflicted about telling any lie regardless of our intent.
And it’s not that the end justifies the means i.e. that because we got a good result we can overlook our use of a bad thing—telling a lie— to get it. It’s that some lies are a force for good, and I’ll say more about that next time.
It all depends on intent.
A truth can destroy mood, confidence, and self-image more brutally and completely than a lie. The world will not be a better place when people stop telling lies, because lies are also instruments of kindness, wonder, and joy.
The world will be a better place when people stop telling the ones that create hate, greed, and division, and it’s vital we all become practiced at noticing the difference.