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
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.