The whole idea for this article began while sitting in the window seat of a U.S. Airways flight back to Jersey. I had the privilege of sitting next to a 50-something year old blonde woman, who, while dressed in the chic attire I might expect of a desperate housewife on the prowl, turned out to be a liberal hippy who was a sucker for subversive political talk. Our conversation began as a handful of whispered comments under our breath, mostly about the flight attendant Nazi who kept pacing up and down the aisle before the flight began. She was an older woman who wore a face with too much makeup, framed by a nest of tight blonde curls. She was also taller and stockier than most high school linebackers. The efficiency of her protocol enforcement was indicative of her experience: clearly, she had been on the job a long time and wasn’t going to take your shit. The projection of her authority was the kind that destroyed the careers of even the best class clowns by, literally, mowing over any comments or objections with a prerecorded phrase that she just kept spitting out:
“You’ve got to get a yellow tag and check that bag, sir. Sir? You’ve got to get a yellow tag and check that bag.”
I even put on my best behavior when she stopped by our row and commanded me to shove my backpack further under the seat ahead.
She won me over in the end, though, with her gloriously potent sass on the intercom:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, I can see seat belts hanging in the aisles; this is a clear indication that they are not fastened.”
I glanced over to my elder hippy neighbor and stared down at her crotch. Her seatbelt was undone; she was the perp. When I brought my eyes upward to meet the black lenses of her sunglasses, she cracked a wide smile through the smacking of her gum chewing.
“Busted! Tryin’ to buck the system…” she said.
She wasn’t the most articulate person in the world, often interrupting her own explanations with curse words and the kind of heavy exhale people do when they think something isn’t worth their time. I’ll give her this, though: she sure as hell was more open to discussion than most people I know her age. At one point in our conversation over the messages of politicians and government, she pulled down her black shades to look at me with her naked eyes. Her face took on a serious tone and her voice got soft.
“Why do you think truth isn’t much of a policy?”
It was the perfect question. Truly, the question itself was the most important thing to come out of the conversation. You could have stripped away all the other mindless banter we threw around for most of the flight, but not this. This was THE question. It’s a question that speaks beyond the ethical practices of government; it also speaks to the very moral faculty of human socialization.
Why is lying not such a big deal anymore? Why is truth ever scarce? And perhaps most importantly, when untruths are revealed, why are their few repercussions?
I started out by telling her this:
A policy of truth demands that people operate with respect to three things: guilt, obligation, and accountability. Telling the truth often leads to a confrontation with these basic principals, while lying tends to help someone avoid them altogether. In a modern society that increasingly emphasizes competition, individual fulfillment, and a detachment from commitment, lying has become an almost acceptable—and in some cases, expected—social tactic. People don’t want to experience guilt; they don’t want to feel obligated to put others before them; and, they don’t want to be held accountable if they drop the ball.
Let’s just back up a second and make this clear: I don’t think it’s reasonable to assume that everyone should have to tell the truth all the time. In some cases, little “white lies” may be exercised in order to protect our privacy or the privacy of others—and for good reason. What I’m interested in is focusing on how lying went from being a BAD social tool, a policy of thieves or low class people, to now, being regarded as a SMART social tool, a policy of successful and intelligent people.
I think (for the most part) we can all identify with an aversion to feeling guilt or taking responsibility, but there’s another interesting reason people tend to tell lies. This is best illustrated by a story my friend told me the other day as we meandered amongst the aisles of a local Target. The story goes that he and a female colleague were called to a meeting of teachers and administrators under the guise of some educational purpose. The meeting itself turned out to be a breeding ground for the support of younger teachers for local politicians. They were asking teachers to donate their time going door to door to solicit support for the government representative. At some point during the meeting, one of the senior faculty members/campaign organizers mentioned that younger teachers were most important, as they would be expected to carry on support for future political agendas.
When explicitly asked about their availability for support, my friend’s colleague did what most people would do: she absolved herself from the obligation to lend support by simply saying that she couldn’t make it. On the other hand, my friend employed a less popular tactic: honesty. He told them that, while he understood their need for support, he wasn’t yet familiar enough with the particular candidate they were advocating for. He respectfully declined to give blind support for a candidate he didn’t know well enough. Of course, he was met with some gasps and persistent attempts to bend him to the will of the campaign, but he didn’t budge.
Upon leaving the meeting, his female colleague turned to him and said something to the effect of,
“Wow, it got pretty crazy in there. That was intense. That’s why you should just agree or make something up like me next time, that way you don’t have to deal with all that bullshit”.
My friend’s colleague had identified avoiding “bullshit” as a just cause for lying. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to ring true for most of the casual lying that we do; people just don’t want to be bothered with having to explain themselves. Tell people what they want to hear—or at least enough to just get them off your back—and you can move on with your life. This is an important point as, in most cases, when people hear what they expect, they tend to ask less questions. Truth isn’t so neat; it often comes with contradictions or contestations. Lies can be tailor-made to fit anyone’s pallet, giving them the response they’re looking for.
So, people want to avoid the drag and baggage of integrity, and, they want to avoid bullshit. Perhaps though, one of the most important things my friend pointed out about his behavior was this:
The tactic his friend employed—lying about her availability—was more socially conscious than what he did. What he did—telling the truth—was the “dumb” thing to do, given the circumstances of the situation. In this way, my friend’s colleague was teaching him a lesson. The lesson was: lying is more socially intelligent than telling the truth. The theme here is that lying is a valuable skill that winners often use, while telling the truth is considered the tactic of “suckers”.
Now, bring this idea into the arena of politics. I recently read a TIME magazine article entitled, Blue Truth, Red Truth. Other than discussing the details of each candidate’s “truth” the article also focused on why political lies are tolerated so well in the first place. They cited a whole bunch of research about how political parties and their voting supporters have become more polarized, how there aren’t as many “undecided” voters as in the past. They talked about how convincing people to change party lines was nearly impossible—even when presented with factual information that exposed the lies of their favored candidate. In the end, the article concluded that most people were just so stuck inside their respective information bubbles that almost nothing could convince them of anything to the contrary. This was the bulk of explanation offered for why voters haven’t come down too hard on their chosen candidate for lying—because they are so dedicated to their sources of spin news and to their chosen candidate and political party, that they DON’T CARE if their candidate lies.
Yet, in light of the conversations I had with that hip lady on the plane and my good friend, I’m pretty convinced that people tolerate these lies because they get it; they understand why each candidate does it, so they don’t blame them so much. I think the majority of people have this unspoken understanding that lying is useful in gaining an advantage, AND, very few people would turn down an opportunity to gain an advantage just to tell the truth—because THAT would be stupid.