I’d wager we’ve all had a friend or family member share one of their new creations with us (maybe a poem, or an article, or a intending-to-be-funny youtube video) and ask, excitedly, “What do you think?” — triggering a series of connected realizations on our end: a) this is not very good, b) what will be achieved by me telling them that this is not very good? c) I want to be a good friend… so our brain wisely instructs us to say, “That’s great. Well done.”
The famous white lie. We’re all committed to the truth in the abstract. It goes all the way back to elementary school classes on George Washington and the cherry tree. We’re all quite clear on the core message: truth is good, falsehood is evil. But, that said… there are times when we’re willing to bend that commitment just a little bit to keep things running smoothly. As the Jewish sages put it long ago, Mutar le-shanot mipnei ha-shalom: “It is permitted to tell an untruth (literally, “to change” the facts) for the sake of peace.” This sentiment can be found throughout history, across all religions and cultures. Everybody lies a little bit, and that’s OK.
But there’s a space where white lies begin to shade into gray. I recall when I worked in a big Silicon Valley tech company that co-workers would sometimes present their grand strategy to achieve some breakthrough or another, and everyone in the meeting would say, “Wow, great work — this is going to be a big success!” and then afterward in the hallway say quietly to each other, “That is never going to work.” Some of my international colleagues told me they felt that this behavior was dishonest. Their feeling was: if you didn’t think it was going to work, the most loyal thing to do is to step up and provide the feedback in an honest and straightforward way. Yes, it may not be feedback the presenter wants to hear, but it’s better than pretending to be in agreement but secretly disagreeing. Those of us who kept our misgivings to ourselves might have been just trying to keep the peace (and this does seem to be a fairly typical American behavior) but we might have been creating more problems over the long run.
Then there’s the question of who it’s OK to lie to. Part of in-group/out-group behavior is related to the question of truth: who is entitled to it, and who it’s okay to mislead. Speaking the truth to someone builds trust. Over time that person learns they can rely on what you say, because experience has proven that you are an honest person who doesn’t lie. But if you don’t care about building trust with someone, or even if you feel hostile toward them, then you may be more prone to lie in order to manipulate them into doing what you want them to do. This behavior obviously creates a race to the bottom, because then they may be more prone to lie to you in retaliation — and trust goes out the window.
Which explains the surge of accusations about lying in our very divided political climate leading up to the mid-term elections next week. Suddenly accusations about dishonesty fill the news headlines every day. Liberals accuse conservatives of lying, so in response, conservatives accuse liberals of the same thing. Each side then says to their compatriots, “See? You can’t trust anything they say.” (Of course, the corollary to that assertion is, “So you should only trust me and what I tell you.”) Accusing the other side of being a liar has a long tradition in politics. History is littered with statements from leaders that one or another of their opponents is a liar, going back to Seneca’s Philosophy of Deception in Ancient Rome.
Over time this dynamic has taken on a cultural tone as well. Those trying to gin-up hate or anger against a group will often accuse a whole race or religion of being liars. Christians have long been accused of perpetrating “pious frauds” to advance their belief. The anti-Semitic assertion that Jews are liars stretches back to Luther in 1543. Those with anti-Muslim bias often intentionally misinterpret the concept of Taqiya (which is a “precautionary dissimulation or denial of religious belief and practice in the face of persecution”) as permission for Muslims to lie to non-believers about everything. These techniques aim to marginalize and “other” groups so as to build loyalty to an “in-group,” and they have been depressingly effective throughout human history.
The reality is, we all lie, on some level. And the whiteness of any particular lie may very much be in the eye of the beholder. This is how attribution error works: I lie because I have to in order to achieve a noble purpose, but you lie because you’re a bad person with evil intent. Leaders may lie to their followers because (a la Seneca) they believe the lying will improve their followers’ well being, and research shows that those followers may not even mind being lied to. This ends-justify-the-means orientation can enable people to rationalize some pretty extreme behavior. But the essential truth is that calling out the lies of your opponents may just reinforce the in-group/out-group dynamic the liar was originally intending to underscore.
I’ve written before on this blog about lies and the truth. One enemy of dishonesty is time, because as Shakespeare put it in The Merchant of Venice, “…at the length truth will out.” The challenge is for us to wait for the facts to catch up to the lies, without allowing (as Hannah Arendt described it) “the credibility gap [to stretch] into an abyss.” Arendt concludes: “…let us remember that the lie did not creep into politics by some accident of human sinfulness. Moral outrage, for this reason alone, is not likely to make it disappear.”