Our world is full of strident voices calling “Lo here!” and “Lo there!”–and sometimes these voices overwhelm quiet truth. We are constantly being lied to, and lies that we believe have damaging consequences.
When I was young, I thought lying was an act like denying a theft from the cookie jar: a falsehood asserted as true, or a truth declaimed as false. I wasn’t wrong to understand it that way–but I’ve come to see the same evil in subtler guises, and I want to point them out.
As I explore this topic, I hope you don’t feel harshness or condemnation. My intent is not to point fingers in a self-righteous way, but rather to meditate on things I’ve seen in my own heart, places I’ve needed correction, or painful lessons learned–in the hopes that it will take the teeth out of some behavior patterns that hurt all of us.
Common Ways to Lie
One familiar but subtle form of lie is to assert a mixture of fact and fiction. The job applicant who puts a bunch of true experience on their resume, but who also embellishes, does this. Advertisements can be similar, if they link true product features with expectations that health, wealth, and good looks come with purchase.
Exaggeration is a related form of lying. A child who yells the accusation “You never listen to me!” at their parent may be lying, in some sense, by being so categorical. The parent who cuts back with “Then stop sassing me all the time!” could be just as guilty. (Here, I am setting aside the issue of intent. Intent matters a lot, and I want to discuss that in depth later on. Hang with me.) Minimization is exaggeration’s twin, and it can be equally untruthful. Any time we use words like “only”, “just”, “always”, “barely”, “all the time”, and “a little bit”, we need to be careful that we are not distorting the truth.
Normalcy can be used to lie. Prejudice survives this way. So does abuse.
Another way to lie is to tell only part of a truth when more is required. When Bill Clinton said, most emphatically, “I never had sex with that woman!” he was being technically accurate–but he was also choosing to be dishonestly silent about a related truth that was relevant to the allegations. It was a lie, no matter how true the words. In this sense, silence can lie, too.
Labels can lie, if they suggest tidy categories for a reality that’s messy; they can invite us to buy assumptions that block insight. The political arena is full of these lying labels. False dichotomies, with labels for either end of a supposed continuum, are the easiest variation to spot: “pro-choice” and “pro-life”; “redneck conservative” and “bleeding-heart liberal”; “tax cut” and “tax hike”. But less binary labels can also hide truth: is “African American” a maximally truthful label for my daughter who’s 50% black…and 50% not black? (What label do I deserve if I am ⅛ Cherokee and ⅛ Irish and ¾ German-English?) In what contexts might it be truthful, or misleading, to make “Mormon” a different label from “Christian”? And so forth…
Applying labels to people and their behaviors is one of the most difficult, morally significant, and contention-fraught behaviors I know. We need labels because they help us process patterns–but we need to be honest and kind as we apply them, always remembering how much broader and deeper a human soul is than a single bucket. No human being is ever adequately described by a small collection of labels like “talented”, “lazy”, “brilliant”, “jerk-wad”, “gay”, “cis-gendered”, “baby-boomer”, “cancer-survivor”, “addict”, “infidel”, “patriarchal”, or “femi-nazi”…
When we see tyrants use labels to lie, we rightly decry the dishonesty. This is a major theme in books like 1984 and Animal Farm. But label-based lying isn’t unique to the powerful. The person who slips on our imperfectly shoveled sidewalk and breaks their elbow, then slaps the “victim” label on themselves and sues us, might also be lying. We can even use labels to lie to ourselves: “I’m a loser” or “I’m ugly” are unfortunate examples. Self-talk, full of labels and usually accepted because the speaker is so believable, may be our most fertile field for deception.
One of the hardest lessons I learned about lying came from a time that I applied the “victim” label to myself. I was transfixed by some soul-deep hurts, and I wanted to scream and rail at the injustice of them. The hurts were not deserved. They resulted from someone else’s choices. Surely that made me a “victim”.
And yet, with time, something in my heart rejected the label. I had the definition right, and all the criteria fit; why was I squirming?
First, “victim” is a passive term, a thing acted upon wrongfully. Yet I was not totally passive; I had made choices that enabled or intensified the hurt. Such choices did not justify the wrong, and they didn’t make me guilty of the wrong I was focused on (though they were independently lamentable), and they didn’t excuse the person who’d wronged me. But they needed to be acknowledged, so I could see that I had at least some power to avoid the hurt in the future. Acknowledging my power and choices made the “victim” label feel imperfect–and the more I explored my power and choices, the more hope and desire I felt to escape it.
Second, I was applying “victim” in the present tense. This was freezing me in a moment of pain, acknowledging neither the happy days before nor the hopeful sunrises after. Saying I “had been a victim” or that I was a “former victim” seemed truer.
Third, I was focusing on the “victim” label in a way that distorted its weight relative to other self-labels that deserved equal or greater weight. This was one of the forms of my power that I came to recognize–I couldn’t erase this experience from the news feed of my life; doing so would be dishonest–but I could choose whether I gave it a bolded headline in 72 point font, or I simply noted it in regular black and white and continued with the next part of my story.
Fourth, and perhaps hardest to absorb, I realized that “victim” connoted a complementary role– ”perpetrator”–that had its own troubles. Most people are multifaceted–good and bad at the same time. They may hurt others in a vain attempt to cope with their own hurts. They hurt without understanding. They may be in the grip of powerful forces (often unleashed by earlier choices that they didn’t understand well) that make future good choices especially difficult. They stumble and lash out and try to be better. I’ve seen a “rapist” offer to help an elderly person with groceries at Walmart… The state prison near where I work is filled with people that police call “perps”–but it is also filled with grief and undeserved misery–”victims”–as well. Both can be true at the same time. For that matter, if I searched my own heart and history, I could find plenty of hurtful offenses–even grievous ones–I’d committed. Perhaps this duality is at the heart of codependence.
In focusing briefly on victimhood, I imagine I might touch some deep hurts you’ve had. Like I said at the beginning, I’m not trying to criticize someone else’s story here. And I’m not claiming that every experience with victimhood deserves the same analysis that mine did. I saw a news report the other day about some children rescued from human traffickers. The youngest victim was 3 months old–and yes, I used the word “victim” there. There was zero volition or choice for that child. So “victim” can be a true word, and perhaps it sometimes deserves headlines in our lives. All I’m suggesting is that it’s a word that can be misused, resulting in lies to others or (most insidiously) to ourselves. We need to think carefully about it. Nuance and complexity is often (though not always) truer.
More Ways to Lie
Unspoken assumptions, or unwarranted conclusions, can lie. This is the way many magic tricks work–a magician gets observers’ minds to fill in gaps with false assumptions. A presidential candidate touts “my tax plan” but glosses over the fact that only the legislative branch of government enacts tax policy; a mayor takes credit for crime reduction while impugning all efforts of his predecessor and ignoring the effect of declining unemployment; a treasury secretary shows a graph of the deficit that looks pretty flat, but doesn’t point out the logarithmic scale or the non-zero origin line. Trump’s rosy budget predictions and talk of tax savings all depend on ridiculous assumptions about steady 3% GDP growth–I would recoil in greater disgust if we hadn’t seen the same general lie from every president I can remember. The candidate who runs on a platform of decades-long belt-tightening, hard work, and sacrifice sometimes feels as rare and unglamorous as a dodo bird.
We can lie with our emotions. There’s good social science to suggest that we demean someone in order to mistreat them. I observed this just today, when an abusive boyfriend called his girlfriend demeaning names–and genuinely felt the emotions that went with those names–as a prelude to further abuse. Setting aside the names (lying labels), the emotions that he felt were lies as well, because they created an unwarranted sensation of hurt that then justified (in his mind) his own lashing out. He used emotions to deceive himself.
Pornography lies by counterfeiting, and it is closely connected with the emotional lying of the abusive boyfriend, because it triggers unwarranted emotions that set us (and others) up for failure and sorrow. We are stimulated, but without the wholesome context we need. More lies ensue–lies to a partner about how we’re spending our time, our money, and our affection; lies to ourselves about what type of intimacy we really crave; lies to others about the life we lead and the values we embody.
Most addictions are similar. A gambling habit substitutes a quick payoff for years of patient saving or productive labor; both give the exhilaration of money, but one is a counterfeit shortcut. Drugs give a high without effort, instead of forcing us to climb a mountain or run a marathon or hold a baby after giving birth. A lie about power–or our lack of it–is at the heart of anger addiction. And so on.
What we Intend
As I mentioned above, intent is part–perhaps the greatest part–of what defines a lie. A groupie who claims they’ve seen a flying saucer may sincerely believe the glimpse to be real and thus may not be lying even if their facts are wrong. A witness who testifies “I saw that man at the scene of the crime!” may be speaking facts, but if their intent is to distract from a second man who was also present, it is still a lie.
Unfortunately, lies are transitive, and this clouds the relationship between lying and malice. With the best of intentions, we may repeat a lie that someone gave to us. Good people can promulgate lies if they are not careful. Are we careful?
Intent is a continuum, not a binary modality. A patient in the emergency room may not intend deep harm when they tell the doctor their pain is an 8 on the 10-point scale, even though it’s not quite that bad. They may be conscious that they are exaggerating–but how much? A football fan who yells at the ref for a bad call may feel a tiny niggle in their heart that they’re over the top, but may not fully realize how unreasonable they are being. The binary question, “Are they lying?” might thus be rephrased, “How much lying are they doing?” And as outside observers, we cannot answer that question with certainty. Sometimes even as speakers or actors, we can’t judge our lying with confidence. This problem gets worse if we allow layers of lies to accrete in our hearts. We may lose the ability to intend truth, because we no longer recognize it.
What We Deserve
It is natural (and right) to start from the axiom that we deserve the truth. But I think that we do not have a moral obligation to tell the truth to others in all circumstances.
I used to wonder, as a kid, what would be the correct choice if Nazis knocked on my door and asked the whereabouts of Jews I was hiding in the basement. How would Jesus resolve this conundrum? Would he lie?
One possible choice is to refuse to answer at all. This is probably the right response to a nosy neighbor who asks us an awkward question–we simply offer no information. If we make it clear that our non-response is deliberate, and not allow it to imply something, it may satisfy any duty we might have (or perceive) toward all parties.
But sometimes this is not possible. What if all imaginable responses (including no response at all) will be interpreted one way or another by our audience? What if the SS will push past us and charge down the stairs if we hesitate or demur?
To me, the answer seems to be: I should lie to the Nazis. I should lie to them at the door, and I should lie to them by implication in my day-to-day activities as they spy on me. In the scenario I posited, the SS would have forfeited any claim on my honesty.
I think we have to be very careful about this, though, because human beings do expect and deserve the truth from one another–and it should take great provocation to forfeit that moral claim. Language itself is predicated on the notion that we give a speaker the privilege of triggering ideas in our mind, and we trust them to use such power cooperatively. Erode that assumption enough, and words become tinkling cymbals unworthy of our attention. Truthfulness is foundational to any functional society. The police officer who pulls us over for speeding should get an honest appraisal from us about how fast we thought we were going, even if he’s racist or rude; the woman who wears an unflattering dress should not get a congratulatory nod from her bestie, even if she wants one. (But circumstances may or may not require the friend to be proactive in her feedback).
There are subtler questions about lying and culpability. What if we know many details about a marriage that’s on the rocks due to the husband’s infidelity, and we hear two less informed friends speculating about why this husband and wife are so unhappy? What if they repeat some unjust, self-serving accusations that the husband has made to cover his own guilt, and we can only correct them by revealing facts that violate the wife’s privacy? What if the friends involve us in their conversation, and our silence is going to be interpreted as agreement? We cannot violate confidences, but silence may be both excruciating and unjust…
I think there may be cases where we cannot speak, and must therefore allow a lie to stand. I take consolation in Shakespeare’s terse observation, “truth will out” — and I hope we all learn to be a bit tentative and soft in our diagnoses of others, having lived through circumstances like these.
How to Speak and Hear Truth
All of these ruminations lead me to the central question of this essay: “So what? What can we do about lying, in ourselves and others?” I don’t consider myself an expert, but I’d like to share some approaches that have helped me become both more honest and more perceptive.
First, I have learned that exaggeration, minimization, and manipulative disclosure are serious offenses. I am trying to drive them out of my own speech, and I appreciate that same effort from others.
Second, I mistrust labels. They can be useful; I use them at times, and I support their use by others. But we should be thoughtful about them. Careful. Nuanced. Tentative. Above all, we should not insist on fitting people or ideas into tidy buckets when we sense that reality is messy in important ways. And we should question our own motives when we claim a label for ourselves in order to tell a convenient but less-than-deeply-true story. This is one reason why I aspire to listen to people who disagree with me. It’s why I donate to both “conservative” and “liberal” causes, why I don’t like the verbiage of “anchor babies” and “illegal aliens”, why I’m a political independent. It’s why I can be supportive of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s goal to eliminate racism and hate, but squirm about their overbearing usage of the “hate group” label and their claims of authority on the semantics that go with it. The Westboro Baptist Church, ISIS, Kim Jung-un, Donald Trump, right-wing talk show hosts, a few militant LGBTQ activists, NOW, skinheads, and media outlets of all persuasions show an affinity for declaring and coopting labels, because whoever defines our vocabulary steers our thinking. Watch usage and see if I’m right.
Third, I dislike cheap simplicity. A local radio station irks me when it says, “Here’s what you need to know this hour”–and cuts to commercials moments later. Really? Oliver Wendell Holmes is credited with saying, “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life [right arm] for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” (The source is apocryphal; the quote may have originated elsewhere. It has a few variations. Regardless, it’s profound.) The best advocate of conservatism isn’t Rush Limbaugh, dismissing opponents to a guitar riff with “half his brain tied behind [his] back” — it’s someone who sees the flaws in conservatism, and the virtues in liberalism, and who will honestly articulate both, and who will then explain why they balance the scales a particular way after taking it all into account. And the best advocate of liberalism isn’t a college freshman who’s never read William F. Buckley, Jr.
Note that “cheapness” isn’t just an indictment of speakers; it can be an indictment of listeners as well. If we want thoughtful answers, we shouldn’t expect to get them in 20-second sound bites. There’s a reason Lincoln and Douglas debates required 4-hour attention spans from their audience, and why deep marital challenges can’t be resolved during a commercial break in a Super Bowl broadcast. Patience is a friend of truth, and listening is an act of love.
Fourth, I recommend gentleness. This is an area where I’ve been pretty deficient, at times. I hope those closest to me can see that I’m improving. Even if you don’t believe in God, there is something profound and sacred in the scriptural notion of a “still, small voice.” What could be a more beautiful metaphor for the way we ought to speak to each other, respect each other, offer ideas in humility and tenderness? Imagine how much truth would flourish and lies would wither if, instead of reckless, sneering tweets, our leaders spoke in soft, respectful tones? If parents and children followed the same pattern?
A Place for Boldness
As teens mature, their brains evolve from black-and-white thinking to a world of gray. It might seem like this essay is just my middle-aged grayness showing through–that my recommendations are all about ambivalence, fuzziness, and tolerance, and that my observations about lying center on spectrums and probabilities.
Maybe there’s some truth in that. There’s a whole lot of gray in the world.
But I do not believe everything is relative, or that caveats and attenuations always reveal the truth most clearly. As Holmes implied, I believe that often there is a deep truth–a simple truth–behind gray complexities. When that is the case, we tell the truth most morally when we tell it straight–and we lie if we pretend the complexities are the greater truth.
Imagine a mother, terrified and furious, who rushes to the hospital to find her son who wrecked the car in a drunk driving accident. When he looks up from a neck brace, teary-eyed, and manages to croak out, “You must be so mad at me!” and she shakes her head and gathers him into her arms and sobs, “I love you!” — she is not lying. She is telling The Truth beside which all other truths pale. To say anything else would be a distortion.
I think it’s appropriate for us to speak Truth to one another sometimes, as long as we do it in love. In fact, if we want to avoid lying, sometimes this form of truth-telling is required. I believe God tells Truth this way, and that many of our beefs with Him stem from misunderstandings of the magnitude of the Truth relative to dissonant details.
I hope we are good enough at hearing and speaking truth ourselves to understand when others speak to us this way. If we respond with “yes, but”, I hope it’s not to quibble.
A Reason to Hope
Lying is a downer of a topic. It can be discouraging to focus on all the ways truth is challenged in our lives. The more I diagnose my own tendencies to distort the truth, the more I see the problem everywhere.
But if I am fair in my treatment, it must be also be said that I am the beneficiary of wonderful truth-telling by the brave and kind. I’ve seen people swallow hard and confess something excruciating that enabled healing. I’ve received painful feedback at work that forced me to make a course correction. I’ve seen brilliant people lose an argument, not because they couldn’t imagine any verbal judo to get the upper hand, but because the truth in someone else’s viewpoint felt compelling enough to abandon their own. I’ve seen kids return an orphan dollar that they found lying on the ground. I’ve heard challenges to my own complacent thinking that were backed by solid fact, not just ego or convenience. And I’ve been graciously listened to and forgiven, over and over again, that I might be free to learn how to tell the truth myself.
Lies decay; truths do not. I’m hopeful that we will recognize persistent truths, and share them effectively, as we persistently seek.