Even When I Lie

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So what does that make you? Good guys? Don’t kid yourselves. You’re no better’n me. You just know how to hide…and how to lie. Me? I don’t have that problem.  I always tell the truth. Even when I lie.

Tony Montana’s speech to restaurant patrons from Scarface (1983)


Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.

The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt (1951)


Justice and honesty will be the first topics of our speech, especially as we are asking for alliance; because we know that there can never be any solid friendship between individuals, or union between communities that is worth the name, unless the parties be persuaded of each other’s honesty.

History of the Peloponnesian War, Book 3, by Thucydides


When I was young, a Sunday School teacher presented our class with a hypothetical.

Imagine for a moment, he said, that a criminal came into the church today and seized your parents. He took them up to the front of the church and pointed a gun at both of their heads. Unless you denied your faith, he would kill them both. What should you do?

A heavy question for a 12-year old, it always disturbed me. ‘Always’, I say, because it was asked of me more than once. It came up shockingly often, although I suspect given differing sensibilities that you might consider once shocking enough. Perhaps it was the favorite brainteaser of a teacher bored of 30 years of giving the same pictorial lessons of Zacchaeus climbing the tree. I think it was a reflection of some evangelical churches’ occasionally morbid obsession with the end times described in Revelations. There was a time when ‘What will you do when you are persecuted for your faith’ occupied much of my mind. ‘What if Jesus returns before a girl ever kisses you?’ occupied most of the rest. There was really no doubt in any of our minds that it was going to happen during our lifetimes. Probably much sooner.

The intended moral of the story was that there is no valid justification for sin. To lie by denying Christ was the greatest of these sins. You will be disappointed to learn that the typical lesson does not discuss the two last people who were asked if they knew Him; the one who lied became Pope, and the one who told the truth hanged himself and, if Luke’s vivid account is to be believed, exploded. Instead, the usual lesson proceeds from Job to a reading from the Sermon on the Mount. You know this sermon, even if you don’t know that you know it. Blessed are the meek, etc. You may not know that this is where it ends up:

If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.

Matthew 5:30

More heavy stuff. In a spectacle to be repeated in a thousand thousand Dodge Caravans and Chevy Suburbans on the way to Old Country Buffet after church, the children turn their Sunday School lesson around on their parents. What would you do, mom and dad, if I were brought to the front of the church? I bet that if you could look in on those parents in those minivans, you’d see just about all of them look their children straight in the eyes and tell them the same thing: I would lie a million times before I let someone hurt you.

For the most part, our moral systems end up with a similar basic set of rules. Don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t cheat, don’t lie. The problems arise in weighing conflicts between rules within our value system, or between multiple value systems. Common sense allows us to easily resolve some of these conflicts. Don’t lie, but if the alternative would result in the murder of your children, lie until your lips turn numb. More often, the units we must weigh are irreducible and incompatible. How many lies offset an act of generosity? The answers to these questions are non-falsifiable, even if various ethical systems purport to have adopted more objective means to answer them. That means that we will disagree. It also means that, as much as we might like to say ‘the ends don’t justify the means’, we are often left with no choice but to judge the rightness of actions  by calculating their expected consequences, and by weighing unweighable goods and bads.

This ground was well-trod among ethicists hundreds of years ago. You need a 4,000-word, dime store survey version of it from me today like you need a hole in the head. But if we would be students of the widening gyre of politics and the black hole of financial markets, there is one ethical topic we must grapple with directly and urgently. It is the thing which Thucydides considered a prerequisite for union within a community. It is what Hannah Arendt considered the first casualty of a state veering toward totalitarianism.

Honesty.

Like any other ethical idea, honesty may inevitably come into conflict with other principles. It is these conflicts and how they are resolved or justified, whether rightly or wrongly, that empower the widening gyre. In simpler terms: our differing reasons for becoming liars are what are causing us to fall apart. Understanding those reasons will play a large role in how we chart a path back to sanity. The way I see it, there are three reasons a person becomes a liar: he believes that he must, he believes that he may, or he believes it serves a Greater Truth.

Because He Believes He Must

You may not remember the name Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf. A one-time attendee of the University of Arizona and erstwhile aspiring English teacher, this man is probably better known to you as Baghdad Bob. In his capacity as Information Minister for the Ba’athist regime in Iraq, he gained fame for issuing preposterous lies at regular press briefings during the US-led invasion in 2003, like announcing ‘there are no American infidels in Baghdad’ over the unique whine of the turbine engines used to power the American M1A1 tanks that were maybe a few hundred yards away from where he stood.

There’s something else you may not know about Baghdad Bob: He also used to read the names of the political enemies Hussein’s government executed.

I think most people, if asked whether Baghdad Bob’s must-see pressers made him evil, would say ‘no.’ That isn’t because those people don’t believe that lying is wrong. They probably do. It’s because they have thought through the likely consequences of his lying. It’s because they regarded Al-Sahaaf with empathy. Everyone knew that everyone knew that he was lying, and Al-Sahaaf knew that they knew it.  We all concluded that there was probably little harm caused by his lying, and knew as well as he that his life expectancy was very much in question if he told the truth.

Even when there are ascertainable consequences to lying to protect our lives, most of us still demonstrate a great deal of empathy. In the Vietnam War, John McCain lent his voice to a Radio Hanoi propaganda recording. In it, he attested to being the aggressor, and praised the quality medical care, food and treatment he received at the hands of the North Vietnamese. Would this have been demoralizing to other POWs? Empowering to the enemy? Yes, possibly. Yet McCain underwent such torture and abuse to extract those statements that few – except for some meta-game morons who used this in campaigns against him for public office – would take any moral issue with his actions. Even if he hadn’t layered on years of courage and selflessness as a POW, McCain would almost certainly have been forgiven this lapse on one simple basis: None of us, being honest, could imagine doing otherwise.

As a rule, our willingness to tolerate those of us who become liars because we must is dependent on our capacity for empathy.

Because He Believes He May

I have two sons – a 2-year old and a 3-year old.

When the boys come down from their room together in the morning, our routine includes asking the older of the two if he slept well. And did you have any dreams? At this point, his eyes begin to scan the room for objects. Yes, Daddy, I dreamt about a…robot…dinosaur…in a rocket ship to…Jupiter! The younger of the two witnesses our eager response and conjures up a slightly modified story, usually with some detail to make it more impressive. I dreamt about TWO Jovian robot dinosaur astronauts, daddy.

In the same way that I lied to you by implying that either of my sons have ever even heard the word ‘Jovian’ because it’s funny (to me) and because I know that you know that I’m making that up, each of my sons is lying through his baby teeth. Because of course they are. Two-year olds are liars. And that’s OK, because we all know that we all know that two-year olds are liars.

Our permissiveness toward certain lies extends far beyond childish boundary-stretching, of course. In most kinds of small talk, we are culturally expected to lie. When we ask Janice about her weekend, we expect her to tell us that it was fine, even if it wasn’t. When we ask Marvin how the kids’ soccer games went, we expect him to tell us how much he enjoyed watching children run around in a horde very, very slowly for several hours. Even our question is a bit of a lie, standing in for something else. It’s us telling a person we love that we were thinking about their family. In exchange, they express gratitude for our concern by not giving us more details about the drying paint that is kids’ soccer. Even in most negotiations (at least in most western cultures), there is some expectation of dishonesty. We expect the car salesman to tell us he’s got to speak to his manager, even though he knows and we know he’s just going to go check his phone – or if the dealership is dumb enough to put the ‘manager’s office’ in view – to sit with the manager for 5-10 minutes of complete unproductivity for all involved. We must find a place to tell someone that something is our final offer, even if we know that it isn’t.

People tell all sorts of other lies because it is common knowledge that they may. It is common knowledge to expect home-team bias from local sportswriters and journalists. It is common knowledge that the cable guy’s 9-12 window means 1:30. It is common knowledge that when someone says they are 5 minutes away, they are 10-15 minutes away. It is common knowledge that the old ’24-hour bug’ probably doesn’t exist. Most of us learn to adopt patience with those who lie because they may, but that patience is not infinite.

Sometimes, of course, we tolerate those who lie because they may because the lies really don’t matter, or because we are indifferent and lazy. But in just as many cases, our willingness to tolerate those of us who become liars because they may is dependent on our capacity for mercy.

Because It Serves a Greater Truth

There is a third reason a person becomes a liar, and it is probably the most powerful: He becomes a liar because he believes it is the right thing to do. Because it serves a Greater Truth.

What are these Greater Truths?

Well, they can be all sorts of things, but they are usually grand concepts like duty, loyalty, honor, fidelity, fairness and justice. It is not hard to imagine examples. What if you were hiding someone in your home who was fleeing from oppression? Would you be willing to lie about their whereabouts to keep them safe? As a soldier of your country under interrogation, would you be willing to tell a lie to protect the secret plans you know? If you were compelled to testify against your spouse, would you lie in their defense? OK, maybe the last one depends on your relationship with your spouse and what they did, but the point is that there are very obviously cases where honesty gives way to some greater moral value.

Fortunately, in modern America we rarely have an interrogator’s gun to our heads. We have little need to hide others from persecution. Hell, many courts in the US cannot even compel you to testify against your spouse. Our civil society provides ample remedies and avenues for redress to conflicts between things we know to be true and things we believe to be important. We are rarely called to consider the relative merits of truth and Greater Truth. Rarely, but not never. There are some social and cultural ideas which are true, which are important, and for which we nevertheless reach an impasse that causes huge political or social blocs to believe – not without reason – that there is no civil redress for their concern. This is invariably the result of the perception of an uneven playing field.

If you knew that something was true AND you knew that it was critically important AND you knew that nothing else in your power – not voting, not debating, not engaging other people – could change it, then would you lie? Then would it be…right to lie? In a sense, you see, like Tony Montana, we would be telling the truth, even when we were lying. It is bewitching logic.

I think there are two such Greater Truths governing our politics.


For my part, I believe that each of these ideas is true AND that each of these ideas is important. You may disagree. But that’s what I think and believe. Now let me tell you what I know. I know that for most of us, when we read these two items together, the bile will rise from our stomach to our throat just a bit. I know that for most of us, our skin will get redder, hotter to the touch, just to be forced to consider this idea next to this other one, which isn’t nearly as important – or maybe not even a real thing!

Let me tell you something else I know. I know that there are maybe two hundred million Americans who feel desperate about their Greater Truth right now, regardless of how important it is to you or me. We believe these things so passionately that we will devote our political lives to convincing more people of their truth and importance. We are so fearful of the damage to our society and our values if we lose these battles, because they are existential. We would do just about anything. Argue with relatives and strangers on the internet? Hell, we do that just for fun! Would we campaign? Sure. Would we give money? Sure.

Would we tolerate lying?

Ah. No?

Then let me ask it a different way. If it meant passing policies that helped the historically disadvantaged reclaim the American Dream, would we tolerate the forceful redefinition of words like bigot and racist to refer not to people who we witnessed treating people differently based on some inherent trait (as it did for hundreds of years), but to refer to people who for some reason opposed our platform of policies designed to tear down unjust institutions? If it meant leveling the playing field dominated by the wealthy and powerful, would we tolerate the presentation of news in ways that actively sought to take those institutions and people to task in exaggerated ways, even if doing so skewed coverage and stepped over the line into opinion and analysis from time to time?

Let me ask it yet another way. If it meant creating a counterbalance to the overwhelmingly biased and unfair media narratives that label every conservative point of view as hate-driven and bigoted, would we tolerate the creation of news networks which are even more aggressive in their mixing of news and opinion? Would we tolerate being led politically by a man who lies constantly and brazenly, just to offset the unbalanced landscape created by our political opponents?

Unlike the other reasons we lie, it isn’t empathy or mercy that govern our reaction. Our willingness to tolerate those of us who lie in service of a Greater Truth is dependent on whether or not we share their belief in the primacy of that Greater Truth. We lie and tolerate these lies not because we must. Not because we may. But because we have convinced ourselves that we should.

And THAT is our greatest lie, the principal tool of our present widening gyre.

What Now?

For at least two more years, until the next ‘most important election of our lives’, parties and people will insist that we must argue about and determine who is more wrong and who is more responsible for our current polarized political state. In fact, I strongly suspect that the majority of email and comment responses will be about exactly those two questions. The word ‘bothsideism’ will make its inevitable, ignominious appearance. And sure, maybe you could make a compelling argument one way or another that there is no comparison. One side has gone way out on a limb, bears the brunt of the responsibility, and there’s no other way around it. Even so, we would still reach the same conclusion:

It. Does. Not. Matter.

I mean, sure, it matters if we’re tallying up points in some imaginary competition. It matters if we are so delusional as to think that a single American is sitting out there determining which policy platform to support and vote for based on our arguments about which party or individual is more to blame for present political polarization.

But here’s something that does matter: If 40% of us believe that the other 40% is irredeemably hateful and bigoted, and that 40% of us believe the other 40% hates us, our country and its values, we have no country. As well-intentioned and well-founded as our Greater Truths may be, if we press ahead with our willingness to pursue fundamentally dishonest strategies with one another in support of those Greater Truths, we have no country. Or, as Thucydides put it:

There can never be any solid friendship between individuals, or union between communities that is worth the name, unless the parties be persuaded of each other’s honesty.

Unfortunately, I think we’re beyond that. Could you really be persuaded? Could I? No. The question for those who still want to be a country together is this: What must I do to convince you of my honesty?

What can members of the political left who still want a country do to convince the other 40% of their honesty? They can start openly talking about and stop ignoring and denying the overwhelming influence of progressives in the media, entertainment and academia. They can stop exploiting ‘hate’ language to end any disagreement over political policy. In every political interaction they have, they can work to suspend every instinct that causes them to believe that the worth and moral value of their fellow citizens are defined by their political opinions.

What can members of the political right who still want a country do to convince the other 40% of their honesty? They can stop justifying lies and liars in support of the Greater Truth of vast left-wing biases in academia, entertainment and media. Lose elections. Lose control of the government. Yeah, maybe that means Beto skateboards into Washington to wag his finger and nominate RBG’s replacement. Do it anyway. And do it for three reasons: do it because, in the long run, it will help the ideas of a party built on individual responsibility and economic freedom. Reagan doesn’t happen without Goldwater. Do it because it will be necessary to maintain a functioning, non-authoritarian society. Do it because it’s the right thing to do.

The alternative is that we can all keep trying to convince ourselves that we’re always really telling the truth, even when we lie. But I’m telling you now – that strategy is as poisonous to its source as the target. And it always ends the same way.

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Mark Kahn
Member
Mark Kahn

The two “greater truth” statements didn’t make my blood boil, but here’s what did: The implication that Trump is somehow worse – somehow a bigger liar, a bigger widener of the gyre, is farther outside the boundaries – than Hillary (putting classified documents on her personal email server – effectively putting our national security at risk – to advance her political goals), than Elizabeth Warren (claiming to be a Native American Indian to leverage victimhood status for political glow), than what too many to be named here did to stop Kavanaugh.

I have no truck with any of them – on either side. I didn’t and wouldn’t vote or support any of them. Maybe I’m taking the easy route by being all moral about it – maybe, but what I can’t stand is the “Trump is worse than Hillary, than Warren, than Spartacus” argument. They are all the same horror show.

The right should renounce Trump and other Trump-like conservatives and the left should renounce Hillary, Warren, et al. When both sides are willing to lose elections to reclaim some sense of morality, honor and dignity, then maybe the gyre will stop widening.

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Mark Clark
Member
Mark Clark

Excellent. Made me recall my favorite aphorism from William Blakes’s “Auguries of Innocence”,
“A truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the Lies you can invent.”

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Michael
Member
Michael

We are led to Believe a Lie
When we see not Thro the Eye
🙂

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Jake Abdalla
Member
Jake Abdalla

Really enjoyed this, thanks.

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John
Member
John

I second your idea that lying is the most pernicious rot on our body politic. One need only compare the lasting damage of the Vietnam War (a misadventure foisted on us through official lies from multiple administrations representing both political parties), with the effects of any of our non-lie-based wars.

Lies are the enemy of us all. Systematically dis-empowering liars would seem to be a rational course of conduct then, yet we seem to be doing the opposite. Power & money flows directly toward the lies and the sirens who sing them. We’ve forgotten how to navigate by the stars, and instead gotten addicted to false compasses.

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ET82
Member
ET82

“When a man lies, he murders some part of the world.” – Paul Gerhardt

Thank you John.

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Victor K
Member
Victor K

The widening Gyre in the electorate is inversely proportional to the narrowing Gyre in the elected. Only the lies of the latter appear to be diverging whilst their actions are converging.

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Christopher Enea
Member
Christopher Enea

Hey Rusty, first time, long time….

I think your analysis is spot on. A lot of people get caught up in the need to argue who’s wrong or who’s worse. (If you think Trump’s bad, wait till you see Hillary or vice versa). I think it’s the same reason why our first reaction in a personal argument is to tell the other person they are wrong. It’s our ego talking. We want to be right. Our minds try to avoid a state of cognitive dissonance like the plague. But like an argument with your spouse, knowing who is wrong is useless. It reminds me of something Jordan Peterson says about this topic. Something to the effect of, if you are constantly arguing with your spouse about who’s right and you win, congratulations you’re married to a loser. Your marriage will fall apart, just like the country will fall apart.

Arguing is also useless because it doesn’t offer any solutions. It focuses on the past and not the future. Why spend time and energy on the things we cannot change? I think the prescription is to switch from a problem-oriented/past mindset towards a solution-oriented/future one. Suspend our egos and work towards solutions to the small problems everyone can agree on. That or more cowbell.

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Michael Madonna
Member
Michael Madonna

Bravo…

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Clive Hale
Member

It’s so refreshing to be able to have a framework to think your own thoughts and be able to start seeing through the fog.
I have been struggling with the “Great Brexit Debate” over here which has been emotionally challenging to say the least in exactly the same way as your “left / right” analogy above. It.Does.Not.Matter certainly helps take me to a quieter place where I can think more clearly but I’m not out of the woods yet…
Thank you again so much for your inspiration.

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Dale Saran
Member
Dale Saran

One other thought, Rusty. I could agree with both of your propositions, not have my blood boil, and still say that one side IS definitively (more) Wrong than the other. As I look at those statements, one is Truthful – completely – and the other is only partially True, and also contains some flagrantly immoral lies, too (but, of course, that’s how the best lies work). Hillary was given debate questions in advance on two occasions by a CNN moderator – who now openly admits it – and she faked and answered as if she didn’t know. She was even told where the audience the question would come from! That she pretended she didn’t know was a massive fraud on the American people. It doesn’t matter that it was in the Primary. The Media have responded by continually abetting that lie, covered for themselves, and foisted the myth that there was something wrong with us getting those emails – to the point of throwing people in jail over it. These are not equivalent Wrongs. One of these sides IS Wrong. Suggesting that the answer is acquiescence to the Left is a form of injustice. It’s like suggesting that both sides of the slavery issue were the same. That was a divided body politic that makes current days seem quaint, but the answer was not acquiescence to the slaveholders. Roughly 500,000 (mostly WHITE MEN) had to march willingly to their death and kill another 250,000 (yep, WHITE MEN) to put that… Read more »

michael gjerde
Member
michael gjerde

‪This is another great piece by Rusty. I understand his points yet want to respond to Mark and Dale’s comments with arguments. Completely validating his points.

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Mark Kahn
Member
Mark Kahn

Your points about lying have re-energized a thought that’s been pinging around my small brain for awhile now: our culture has shifted its hierarchy of traits and behaviors that define a good, moral person. Up until about twenty years ago, personal responsibility and integrity – do not steal, cheat or lie / act with honor / be responsible – was the first and highest set of values a person was judged upon. Doing charitable work was always in the mix of things people were taught to do, but it was a notch down on the moral scale from personal integrity. You didn’t get to lie and (figuratively) erase it by serving dinner in a soup kitchen. In the ’40s and ’50s, my, then a-young-man, dad drove kids with polio to “outings” (picnics, a day at the beach, the circus, etc.). As kids, my generation knocked on our neighbors’ doors collecting change in orange cardboard UNICEF boxes. But those actions hardly garnered a mention on a school application or resume. Be the person caught stealing or lying back then and “you could ruin your life.” You knew to never damage your reputation by doing those things because no one would ever trust, hire or respect you again. But around the turn of the century, a shift occurred and resumes started popping up with extensive descriptions of charity work – “built homes for the…/served in… -” at the same time I heard more and more anecdotes, loudly proclaimed, about all the charity… Read more »

Jane VanFossen
Member
Jane VanFossen

I’ve observed the same self-congratulatory trend in charitable acts and decided, some time back, to keep
my own giving private, anonymous, and focused on “individuals” in need of help.

There’s a deep sense of rightness that comes from hearing the speculation about who the “do-gooder” was and to be the only one in the room who knows it was your own lowly self. : )

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Edward Duffy
Member

What about the Bendict Opition? If our country is 40/40/20, perhaps we are beyond the tipping point? I have read that republics have a limited life span, perhaps 250 +/- years. Maybe we are approaching Megiddo pass the site of a decisive battle.
Isn’t the history of the world repleat with societies the coalece around a few core principles, acquire resources and grow to become empires which then crumble due to exestiental forces or internal forces?
Perhaps it is time to start anew with small communities that focus on neighbors, try not to force their beliefs upon others and work to provide a heritage to their membes that acknowledges others, including strangers, as equals before a far, far greater Other or Divine?

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Eric Steen
Member
Eric Steen

Hey Rusty, Great article and my apologies for being late to the reply section for this one. This note helped to bring forth some ideas and lead me to a thesis that I would not have reached alone. Going back in US history, there have been three questions that have historically divided the country to the level to which there was no effective direction and the future of the country seemed uncertain. First, the Revolutionary War brought forth the question of whether the country was to continue to be governed as a subject of the crown, or would a newly formed self governing body be able to overthrow the mother country, a task that had rarely (if ever) been accomplished before? The Civil War pit brother against brother over the second question of whether all men are truly free in this country, a question that severed the country, a severance which shadow still haunts the country today. The third issue relates to the path the country would follow as it dealt with and emerged from an economic catastrophe in the 1920s and 30s. Would it succumb to Father Coughlin, the Silver Legion, and listen to the siren song of fascism? Would Lindbergh & the American First Committee be successful in maintaining the ideals of the founders and remain uninvolved in foreign affairs that were oceans away? Could Roosevelt somehow convince the people that the best move for the United States is to plunge into the fray in order to aid… Read more »

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