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Saturday, 18 July 2015

What is lying?

The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky - The Brothers Karamazov (1880)

“I didn’t do it Mummy,” says little Kyle as he stares at his muddy footprints on the brand new carpet.

Little Kyle is lying of course, but adults can be just as dishonest if less transparently so.

“Another bus is due in ten minutes,” Kyle’s dad assures the bus stop queue, but he checked the wrong timetable on his phone and the bus doesn’t arrive.

Kyle’s dad isn’t lying of course. He made a mistake.

These two examples are islands in a vast swamp. Clarity reigns and even Kyle is reasonably well aware of what’s what. As we all know it becomes tricky when we consider the demands of more complex situations, the need to belong and the emotional need to feel that one does indeed belong.

“I just sent the emails,” Kyle’s mum tells her boss. She hasn’t but she’ll send them as soon as her boss leaves the office.

Kyle’s mum is lying in order to seem more efficient that she actually is. A common enough occurrence and in a sense the situation demanded the lie, or at least suggested it. Or maybe the boss demanded it. Depends on the corporate culture and how it punishes lapses. Why lie at all though? Why not be scrupulously honest? Because as Kyle's mum knows too well, life frequently doesn’t work out well for honest folk. Honesty is often punished where lying isn’t.

Suppose we have two aspects to our behaviour. Firstly we respond to stimuli and our responses are moulded by the need to seek the path of fewest surprises and/or greatest benefit. Secondly, and this one seems to be optional, we sometimes veto the natural, expected or automatic response. We hold back, disengage, remain detached.

Lying often seems to be a failure to veto untruths due to the demands of a situation. So we may not always be aware that we are lying or may only be partially aware. One person may veto a lie and acknowledge that it is a lie. Another may veto any possible acknowledgment that the same lie is indeed a lie. Kyle’s mum might deal with her lie either way, although she probably knows she lied.

Lies are often demanded by common situations in daily life and the demands can be overwhelmingly strong. Everyone is at least partly aware of the demands and the lies but not everyone is in a position to acknowledge their awareness. Sometimes not even to themselves, in which case any residue of awareness seems to disappear completely and people do strange things.

The problem is particularly acute when lies are demanded on pain of exclusion or expulsion. Such as losing a job, the threat of being sidelined or otherwise punished in one of the many ways we use to punish inconvenient integrity. If we don’t veto the lies we get to stay in the job, on the career path or merely in a passably comfortable situation.

Advantages outweigh disadvantages and the lie is the path of fewest surprise, the path of least resistance. Colleagues reward the lie, punish dissent and assist in repelling outsiders, although outsiders may be repelled by the lies anyway. We don’t have to do anything to reap the benefits of lies, we merely fail to veto them.

If we look at it this way, then truth-seeking becomes detachment, a preference for veto over assent. This seems to be why cynics, sceptics and curmudgeonly doubters are often sidelined and often turn out to be right in the long run. Hem hem.

In themselves vetoes are not the answer though. Almost all of us veto certain sources of information such as certain news media or certain people yet a blanket veto is almost bound to miss something of value or interest. Even so, lying may be seen as a mode of attachment and a corresponding failure to veto its dishonesty.

In many cases, people both know and don’t know they are lying but there is no contradiction. Situations which successfully demand and elicit lies are much more powerful than the individuals they control. People could know they are lying if the situation changed its demands, but as it is they are often barred from knowing their own lies in any overt sense. All knowledge is unconscious until it is called into consciousness but powerfully dishonest situations do not issue the call and actively suppress its emergence.

Politicians are interesting liars. Extreme cynics who try to avoid direct involvement with coercive situations while repeating the lies from a safe distance so others may be blamed if things go wrong. Lies are useful.

9 comments:

Sackerson said...

I once overheard two Asian schoolboys conversing, and one said, as quoting an old proverb, "When two people speak, one is lying."

Sam Vega said...

"Lies are often demanded by common situations in daily life and the demands can be overwhelmingly strong. Everyone is at least partly aware of the demands and the lies but not everyone is in a position to acknowledge their awareness. Sometimes not even to themselves, in which case any residue of awareness seems to disappear completely and people do strange things."
Two thoughts about this. One is merely an observation about a woman in my office who is almost universally hated for her incompetence and lying. She is hardly ever where she ought to be, and leaves a tangled mess of half-truths and prevarication behind her. She seems to be utterly devoid of shame, and tells whoppers to fend off the consequences of her ineptitude. I often wonder whether she is aware of the fact that she is lying, that lies have become her default position. Perhaps this awareness was initially clear to her, yet became so painful that she had to suppress it.
Second, it seems to me that one measure of a person's wisdom is that they get out of situations in which they have to tell lies as soon as possible. Remaining in such environments when one does not have to is folly; perhaps worse than exposing oneself to chemical pollutants or other things that injure the body.

Demetrius said...

I have never, ever, lied.

Sackerson said...

Demetrius must have been the other person in the conversations!

A K Haart said...

Sackers - I often wonder if we should be more strictly truthful with children. No Santa Claus, no fairy tales, no dragons, magic or witches. Disney would go bust.

Sam - blimey - I know what you mean although I've never had to deal with anyone quite so ghastly. You are right - wiser heads do get out of dishonest situations but others seem to be completely oblivious.

Demetrius - apart from this comment neither have I.

Sackerson said...

"I often wonder if we should be more strictly truthful with children" - or alternatively, as my friend used to, spoof them frequently to make them more alert and sceptical.

By the way, why should I have to keep proving that I'm not a robot? Can't robots make intelligent comments, witty divagations? Don't they (shouldn't they) have rights?

And, escaping the jealous scythe of the Reaper, it should be easier for them to keep up a correspondence: R2D2 longa, vita brevis.

Roger said...

No darling, your bum does not look big in that dress. Would I lie?

Your call is important to us - ring ring ring ring - your call is important to us - ring ring ring ring. Enough already.

The XYZ party if elected promises to cap care home fees at £75K and not kick the idea into the long grass.

Try a 'presentation skills' training course, the subtext never stated is how to fake sincerity. I could go on and on and on.....

Roger said...

Oh, I forgot a good English expression 'To lie like a lawyer', ponder how it is done and despair.

A K Haart said...

Sackers - you have to keep proving you are not a robot because the day will come when the whole access thing is switched round and only robots are allowed on the interweb.

Roger - a chap could write a book on it and no doubt many have. There is so much to be gained from integrity, but the people who matter are not those who would gain from it.