Lies. They bug the shit out of me. Nothing gets my blood boiling or my hackles up quite like a masterfully crafted piece of bullshit.
I am often amazed at the skill of some liars who rival Mozart and Einstein in their respected fields. However, amazement is not respect and while I concede a case could be made for the little-white-lie, I am often baffled by the need for it.
To lie is human; I grant you that. I can say I have never lied, but that in fact, would be a lie. We have all done it.
To cite an example, a few years ago I found out that an acquaintance of mine, Sam (not real name) had committed suicide. I was hurt, I was baffled, I had no idea what had lead him take his own life. Immediately I called my friend George (not real name) to see if he had heard. He had heard, some weeks back in fact, that our mutual friend/acquaintance had taken his own life. Stunned, I asked why he hadn’t told me. He shrugged (yes, I could see him do it on the phone while he prevaricated.) And he said he didn’t think it mattered that much. I hung up the phone in a mild-rage and tried to sort-out the melange of emotions in my head.
A few weeks went by and I discovered the reason why Sam had committed suicide. So I picked up the phone and called George.
“Did you know why Sam committed suicide?” I asked.
His response was silence. I asked again, and I got a long silence. Half way through a third time George blurted , “Yes, I know why he did it! He did it because he thought he was gay and he couldn’t handle it!”
Sam had killed himself because he could not reconcile his emotional state with what he was. George did not want to tell me because he was some how ashamed. I was never sure if he was ashamed of Sam’s nascent homosexuality, or that he had killed himself over it; Or perhaps, he was ashamed of both.
I felt a lot of sympathy, and a dash of anger for George.
I have only spoken to him twice since.
Had Sam come to me, or George, or his multitude of friends and family this may never have happened.
So what is it? What is that force that compels us to augment or even falsify, or withhold the truth?
Why do we hold crushing self-realizations to ourselves? Why do we talk about people behind their backs? Why do we tell our friends about mistakes and short-comings of our spouses - and never tell them?
Why do we preserve and indulge in memories of the time we snorted coke, cheated on a test or to get a job, or the same-sex triad we had while teaching english in eastern Europe? And then, one day, like a bullet in a gun, fire it into the heart of a loved one in the heat of an argument.
When ancient religions and superior-minded deities offer comfort for some and no answers for all, why do we marginalize and sometimes deny or threaten to destroy and cheapen the one thing we have in this life, which is each other?
Simple question, but I think it requires a great many different answers, most quite complex. A few examples follow.
1. Social lubricant: “How are you today?” “Fine.” First, the person probably doesn’t want to know. Second, if you say, “Shitty, what’s it to you?” you may be telling the truth, but you are damaging your relationship.
2. Encouragement: You listen to a kid play the piano horribly, after six months of lessens. You say, “not bad. Keep it up.” That’s far better than “Geez, your playing almost made me vomit. You haven’t learned a thing in six months, have you?”
3. Avoidance of consequences: “The lawn looks terrible. Why haven’t you mowed it?” “The power mower is broken and I’m waiting for the part to fix it.”
4. Telling the truth can cause another probem. “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” “No, I plan to lie in favor of my friend, the defendent.”
I agree that honesty is preferable, but there are situations where lies are actually preferable for the specific situation.
In addition, there are degrees of shading that aren’t quite lies. An example I’ve used before is the conjugation of irregular verbs: “I am husky, you are a bit heavy, he is a fat slob.”
Lies belie a lack of acumen and/or a sense of humour. So does telling the truth, it’s all so lame.
Example: When someone phones on a wrong number, and asks is “Can I speak to Sheila etc.?” I always answer “She’s in the shower, can she call you back in an hour or so?” and then I brusquely hang up the phone (this getting a bit dated, it’s hard to slam down a cellphone, but work with me..I’ve had lots of fun with this).
A lie? Sure. But so was their end - get it right next time.
Revenge? Of course. And as for poor Sheila… priceless.
As Occam noted, this is all immensely complicated. Let me point out that George could well have been motivated by the noble desire to protect Sam’s reputation. Sure, that might have been inappropriate in your case, but could George be sure? Perhaps he had encountered a few people who reacted with something along the lines of “Well, good, one less fag to dirty up the world” and found that so painful that he just didn’t want to risk that kind of response again. I would be hesitant to condemn George until you really know what was going through his head. After all, you didn’t know what was going through Sam’s head, either. This is a fundamental philosophical issue. Do you assume the worst of people until you know better, or do you assume the best of people until you know worse? I prefer the latter—and I’ve had a run-in with a fellow here who prefers the former. It’s not a matter of what’s right and wrong, or justice. It’s really a matter of how happy you want to be. If you assume that people are bad until proven good, then you cut yourself off from them. You cannot have human relationships if you don’t fundamentally love people. If you assume the best of people, you will have more rewarding relationships. You will also suffer betrayal.
I am fortunate to have a wife whose suspicion of other people balances my trust in people. I’m the sucker who gets taken advantage of; she’s the guardian who intervenes in the worst cases. It’s a great good-cop bad-cop routine, and I get to be the good cop. Ironically enough, she’s the more sociable one, who has lots more friendships than I have. But mine are deeper, I think.
I don’t think that you’re experiencing lies here. Not that lies aren’t a big problem: I think that lack of integrity is the one of the greatest personal failings of many people. The fundamental mistake that so many people make is to permit their desires to intrude into their knowledge. They believe some things because they want to believe them. That’s perhaps the biggest foundation for religion—people are afraid of seeing the world without a Father-figure taking care of everything for their benefit. They remain in a permanent state of childhood, trusting their father-deity to take care of them, even if He does work on mysterious ways. The danger here is that lies cut you off from the real world, isolate you in a tiny self-made universe. “When a man lies, he murders a part of the world.”
When someone phones on a wrong number, and asks is “Can I speak to Sheila etc.?“ I always answer “She’s in the shower, can she call you back in an hour or so?“ and then I brusquely hang up the phone (this getting a bit dated, it’s hard to slam down a cellphone, but work with me..I’ve had lots of fun with this).
Oh, come on, you can do so much better than that:
Uh…. Shiela… she’s… uh… (muffled voices heard with hand over phone)... she’s not here now. I’ve gotta go. Bye.
Shiela? She’s at the library.
[Somebody wants Shiela. What should I say?]... She’s not here now.
There’s nothing complicated here. It all comes down to consequences. You have to bear the consequences that come with telling the truth and its often easier to tell a lie and avoid the consequences. I really can’t think of a single exception. That’s why people lie.
While I enjoy a good joke, and even a clever lie, the idea of responding to a wrong number as mentioned above is just plain nasty. It’s certainly not within the principles of humanism. Any of us can hit the wrong key by error. When someone calls, and it’s obvious that they misdialed, I ask, “What number were you trying to reach?” When it’s given, I say, as applicable, “You pressed the wrong button on the fourth digit.” No one deserves to be given misinformation unless you are certain that it won’t cause unexpected harm.
If we’re agreed that lies are avoidable at best, and “blood-boiling” at worst, how do we feel about the performing arts? Acting and Magic both require lies in order to be effective and entertaining. These lies don’t serve any particular greater good as Occam referred to, but the arts in question would not be able to exist without lies.
So: Are lies in the service of art/entertainment justified?
Are lies in the service of art/entertainment justified?
I think this question misinterprets the concept of a lie. If I were to teach somebody dynamics, for example, I would start off by presenting a very simple—but technically incorrect—version in which I use simple differences to illustrate my points. Acceleration equals delta v over delta t. They would learn it at that level first.
But that would be a lie. Once they have understood the concepts at this simple level, I could then introduce them to the same concepts using calculus. This would provide them with a clearer and more precise understanding of dynamics. But it would still be a lie, because it still fails to include a number of other factors. So I would teach them about Hamiltonians and Lagrangians to give them an even more accurate representation. And even THAT would still be a lie, because I’d have to teach them about relativistic factors. And let’s not forget quantum mechanics, either—that belongs in there, too.
It is impossible NOT to tell a lie when describing the world, because the world is always more complicated than any expression we can concoct to describe it. EVERYTHING we say about the world is a lie because it is a simplification or approximation. So we tell the version that is most readily assimilable by our interlocutor. And that is the best way to communicate with people.
I’m not sure that it’s a question of misinterpretation. When William Shatner says: “My name is James T. Kirk” he is lying. When he screams out “Khaaaaaan!” in rage, he’s not actually feeling rage at Ricardo Montalban, it’s a complete and utter lie. It’s not about subtly misrepresenting the world, it’s a direct contradiction of the facts. Similarly, a magician will say that they’re holding a quarter in the right hand, when it’s really in the left. It’s patently false, but the mainstream public is generally okay with it.
So where’s the demarcation? Why is lying in the service of art different than lying in the service of social lubrication or immoral gain?
I’d disagree with calling either elementary physics or stagecraft lying. As you note, Chris, elementary physics is an approximation to the truth, which has the advantage of simplicity, not a small thing in a pedagogical context. In teaching it to your students, you are not intentionally misleading them; you are providing an account which is approximately true, and indeed one that gives them the right answers (to a degree of certainty) in the contexts in which it is being provided.
Stagecraft, of course, is intentionally misleading in a sense, however it is misleading only in the context of an audience which is cognizant of being mislead. It is a species of ‘make-believe’, and everyone is (or is anyhow expected to be) in on the joke. That’s what distinguishes a magician like Randi from a fraud like Uri Geller. The latter claims not to be engaging in make-believe at all, and usually presents himself in front of audiences that do not take him as practicing any form of stagecraft.
That said, in practice much of what passes for fiction does get sucked up by the public in a way that makes it prone to mischief. Plato was right to fear the fictional arts. After all, what are the famous works of religious literature but works of fiction? Certainly, they are not complete fictions, but the parts of them that are of religious importance are. Studies of the history of the UFO phenomenon similarly gauge the earliest representations of UFOs and their denizens to early works of SF. So while fiction is not precisely a lie, it is a form of make-believe that may, under certain ordinary circumstances, take on the psychological, social and political force of a lie.
Dezrah, I think that your approach is entirely too simplistic. When William Shatner says, “I’m James T. Kirk”, there isn’t a person watching who doesn’t know that he really is just acting. The audience is in on the false statement—so how can it be a lie? Similarly, when the magician says, “I’m holding a quarter in my right hand”, there isn’t anybody in the audience who takes that statement at face value. They KNOW that there’s something afoot. If they didn’t know it, at some point some rube would jump and say “That ain’t no quarter in yer hand!” and everybody would burst out laughing at his naivete.
Doug, my point regarding teaching is that the definition being offered previously yields absurd results. Teaching is not lying, but it is, in the strictest sense, a set of statements known by the speaker to be untrue. That’s why I claim that our definition of lying needs to be more complicated.