On Lying

Posted by Randy in Meta

My 2.5. year old granddaughter is learning language (two languages actually) and has just learned that what you say can get you what you want. She is also learning to lie. Oh she’s not good at it yet, but she has learned that denying you have pooped can get you continued play even when there is olfactory and visual evidence to the contrary. That got me thinking about the how young we learn that lying can get us what we want.  There are all kinds of lies: the bold faced lie when we say something we know to be untrue, the omission lie when we just omit to say something about something we know happened, the lie by exaggeration when we say things are more than we know them to be, the partial truth lie when we only tell part of the truth knowing that the rest weakens our case, and the mistaken lie when we say something we think is true but which later turns out to have been false. This list is by no means comprehensive, but it does give you some idea of the complexity of lying.

To not lie is also a learned behavior brought about by the negative consequences of lying, the adoption of a moral or ethical code that lying is wrong, or by the realization that the truth will come out sooner or later. If you do not suffer the consequences of lying, do not adopted a code that says lying is wrong, or learn that the truth often comes out so late that you have already gained something by lying when it does appear, then one does not learn not to lie. I have just been watching a detective show called “The Tunnel” (a very good show by the way) in which one of the detectives is on the Asperger’s spectrum and has not learned the social skills which encourage petty social lies to lubricate social interactions. She has to be taught by her detective partner and her detective supervisor how to do it. She awkwardly tries to do it when all her instincts are saying “tell the truth.” Hilarity ensues.  Recently I saw the play The Iceman Cometh on Broadway with a stunning cast including Denzel Washington. Its main point is that we all need the little lies we keep telling ourselves about how life is going to get better (when it really isn’t) in order to continue to exist. The moral of these two dramas therefore is that a little lying in the right circumstances can be a good thing.

The second point I want to make about lying derives from a point sociologist Erving Goffman made in a famous sociology book called The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. In it Goffman argues that the idea of self is really a gambit we present to others. If they accept it then that is our public self. However, others can reject it as well and if they do, our gambit has failed so we need to find a different “self” to try to present. Similarly with lying we present it to others and if it is accepted by the others it becomes the truth no matter how temporary. If we reject it for example, but the odor does not support my granddaughter’s claim that she has not pooped, then we know it is a lie and take appropriate action. In other words a lie’s acceptance or rejection depends on the presence of evidence to the contrary and the acceptance or rejection of that evidence.

All of this brings us to our current president. Early in his life Donald Trump must have discovered the same thing as my granddaughter: lying can get you what you want. He is the consummate liar whose lies as president number in the thousands. He has uttered all the different types of lies for example bold faced lies, lying by omission, mistaken lies and too many types to keep track. This brings up two questions to me: a) Are his lies of the white lie variety and just necessary for social interaction? and b) Is there evidence to suggest that we accept his lies or is there evidence to reject them? As to the first we must begin by admitting that all presidents lie, at least by omission. There are state secrets that they know but choose not to tell the public. Beyond this there are certainly exaggerations or untrue things that presidents say for rhetorical reasons that count as lies. Trump has however gone way beyond this. He has said things he knows to be untrue, repeated untruths he has heard on Fox News without checking them, and told lies to disparage those who disagree with him or bolster his own self confidence. He clearly rejects all evidence that contradicts him and when pressed just makes shit up. The question is whether we should accept or reject his lies. Many of his supporters accept them as truth and reject evidence to the contrary. Some recognize that he has lied, but simply ignore or rationalize it. Others accept the evidence (usually provided by a free press and called fake news by Trump) and do not want a president who behaves this way and treats his supporters this way. Each of us needs to decide which group we belong to. As for my granddaughter I think I will try to instill in her the ethical code of truth telling even though it may hurt her future presidential chances.

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