Is it just me, or do fewer and fewer people seem to be lying these days?
Cheating and stealing are as popular as ever.
But lying seems to be in decay. Some lies are even illegal — you can’t lie about having won a Congressional Medal of Honor, according to the 2005 Stolen Valor Act passed by Congress, a law that is now creeping slowly toward the Supreme Court.
It’s time someone spoke up.
In a decision that made me want to stand on a chair and shout “Yes! Yes! Absolutely,” Judge Alex Kozinski came eloquently to the defense of lying:
Saints may always tell the truth, but for mortals living means lying. We lie to protect our privacy (“No, I don’t live around here”); to avoid hurt feelings (“Friday is my study night”); to make others feel better (“Gee you’ve gotten skinny”); to avoid recriminations (“I only lost $10 at poker”); to prevent grief (“The doc says you’re getting better”); to maintain domestic tranquility (“She’s just a friend”); to avoid social stigma (“I just haven’t met the right woman”); for career advancement (“I’m sooo lucky to have a smart boss like you”); to avoid being lonely (“I love opera”); to eliminate a rival (“He has a boyfriend”); to achieve an objective (“But I love you so much”); to defeat an objective (“I’m allergic to latex”); to make an exit (“It’s not you, it’s me”); to delay the inevitable (“The check is in the mail”); to communicate displeasure (“There’s nothing wrong”); to get someone off your back (“I’ll call you about lunch”); to escape a nudnik (“My mother’s on the other line”); to namedrop (“We go way back”); to set up a surprise party (“I need help moving the piano”); to buy time (“I’m on my way”); to keep up appearances (“We’re not talking divorce”); to avoid taking out the trash (“My back hurts”); to duck an obligation (“I’ve got a headache”); to maintain a public image (“I go to church every Sunday”); to make a point (“Ich bin ein Berliner”); to save face (“I had too much to drink”); to humor (“Correct as usual, King Friday”); to avoid embarrassment (“That wasn’t me”); to curry favor (“I’ve read all your books”); to get a clerkship (“You’re the greatest living jurist”); to save a dollar (“I gave at the office”); or to maintain innocence (“There are eight tiny reindeer on the rooftop”).
Sure, it’s deplorable to pretend to be a Medal of Honor winner. But Judge Kozinski is right. It’s time to come to the defense of lying. Polite society has always been based on the art of the delicate lie — his “Gee you’ve gotten skinny” is only the tip of the iceberg. It’s a lie to say that you’re comfortable in this chair, a lie to say that you’d like to watch this Colin Firth movie, a lie to say that you have nothing better to do this evening than help someone move his furniture.
And this is the kind of lie our society comes down on the hardest. Every so often, a Radical Truth-Telling Movement comes out of the woodwork and produces a personal essay for the back of some magazine and 18 family members who won’t speak to you for weeks. “Never lie,” people say. “Just tell people what you really think. Hang up on Grandma. Tell people when you’re bored or hungry. Otherwise it’s dishonest.”
No! No! Lie, by all means. It would be far, far worse to say what you think all the time! But that’s where society is heading faster than we can say, “I chopped down the cherry tree and you look fat in that dress.”
Sure, things may be funny because they’re true. They say that an amateur finds it funny when you dress a man up as an old lady and push her down a flight of stairs — for a pro, it has to be a real old lady. But the upshot of that is you get people mouthing off after tragedies.
“It would be a lie if I said I was sorry What’s His Name died,” someone says.
No, it wouldn’t be a lie. What it would be — is polite.
And consider what technology is doing to the art of the lie. GPS tells you where your husband really is at night. With the advent of Google, forget phony framed degrees and resumes. Frank Abagnale would have had a much harder time pretending, as Frank Abagnale, to be someone different. Sure, you can create all kinds of mysterious online identities, but as our Real Facebook Identity becomes our pathway into more and more of the Online Conversation, that might be changing. And having to be yourself, all the time, even online, without any of the veneers of civilization? That would be hell on earth. Polite society wasn’t simply developed because someone back in the day really liked forks of varying sizes. It was to make it easier for human beings to live together. And nothing makes it harder to live together than saying everything that runs through your head, as most people’s Facebook feeds will tell you.
The demise of lying goes hand in hand with our desire to expose more and more of ourselves. If you’re exposing yourself constantly, you run out of your best self pretty fast. There was a reason diaries used to be under lock and key — because several days later the fact that you hated everyone and everything and wanted to move to Sweden to pursue an acting career would seem ludicrous, and while it would have been superficially true at the time, publishing it widely abroad would have missed the deeper truth of who you were.
There’s a difference between truth and accuracy. And that’s where lying comes in. And we ought to defend it to the death — if we want to be able to stand each other.
As Judge Kozinski wrote: “An important aspect of personal autonomy is the right to shape one’s public and private persona by choosing when to tell the truth about oneself, when to conceal and when to deceive. Of course, lies are often disbelieved or discovered, and that too is part of the pull and tug of social intercourse. But it’s critical to leave such interactions in private hands, so that we can make choices about who we are.”
That’s the truth.