Friday, August 28, 2009

Is America a Nation of Liars?

Are we, as Newsweek proclaims, "a culture of liars," or do we just like to beat ourselves up, for sins real and imagined? Link here.

Are we a bunch of flagrant, raging, incurable liars? Do we cheat all the time, break all the rules while pretending that being honest and trustworthy are for chumps? Do we believe that the more you cheat the more you get ahead?

Jessica Bennett raises these points in an unfortunate article from Newsweek. If she had set out to show us why no one ever reads the magazine any more, she has certainly succeeded.

If she believes what she is saying, then public virtue, honestly and integrity, is a sham. The only relevant distinction is between those who lie well and those who do not.

You do not even have to pretend to be a good person; you can spend your time worrying about whether or not you are going to be caught in your lies.

I would like to think that Bennett is being ironic, but I fear that she has been seduced by those who wish to glorify lying. In her words: "Liars get what they want. They avoid punishment and they win others' affections. Liars make themselves sound smart and savvy, they attain power over those of us who believe them, and they often use their lies to rise up in the professional world. Many liars have fun doing it. And many more take pride in getting away with it."

Bennett does not seem to believe that anything bad happens when people get caught in their lies. She feels that they just get away with it, as in Bill Clinton, Mark Sanford, Elliot Spitzer... none of whom really got away with lying.

In Bennett's world: "socially successful people... are good liars.... Lying adolescents are more popular among their peers."

What is possible compensation is left for those who insist on telling the truth?

At first glance this seems to be intuitively implausible. Do you want to hire someone who has lied on her CV? Would you keep a friend who has lied to you? Do people always get away with identity theft?

If your intuition had not put you on guard, the flimsiness of Bennett's reasoning should set off warning sirens: "Students who succeed academically get picked for the best colleges, despite the fact that ... as many as 90% of high-schoolers admit to cheating."

Is it too much to expect that an editor might have picked up the offense against reason here? Let us imagine that a large number of students cheat at one time or another. They might get outside help on a homework assignment; they might sneak a peak at someone's test answer.

Do you think that that means that students can cheat their way to Harvard or Duke? Were the best students those who were best at cheating their way through high school? Did they cheat on their SATs?

Besides, what happens if you are caught cheating? Is it an exercise in hypocrisy to punish a cheater when we are all cheaters?

The notion that successful people get away with lying is equally offensive. What about the "liar loans" that contributed mightily to our financial crisis? In the end no one really got away with lying on their mortgage applications, not the lenders, not the borrowers, not the financial system.

Unfortunately, Newsweek paints the topic so broadly that it makes us think that we do nothing but lie, and that we are lying to ourselves if we think otherwise.

But Bennett does not distinguish between flagrant falsehoods and good manners.

Being polite and well-mannered means that we engage in certain formal social rituals, like shaking hands and offering greetings.

Would you consider yourself to be a liar if you tell a friend you are happy to see him when your heart is not bursting with joy. The expression is a ritual formality; it does not even pretend to express a metaphysical truth.

If you were less than happy to see a friend and said as much, you would simply be rude. If you did it often enough you would soon become friendless. Would your passion for an abstract idea-- the truth-- compensate for your friendlessness.

Ritualized expressions of greeting are not lies; they are ritualized expressions of greeting. They affirm a social connection. Nothing more or less.

The psychologist who called them "an omnipresent white noise that we have learned how to tune out" has no real understand of how people connect in society. I am confident that the failure to perform such a ritual would immediately be noticed and would be received as the rude dismissal that it is ... in truth.


DAve said...

She, like most people who have
(as opposed to what used to be considered "normal behavior"
is lying to herself that she's just doing what everyone else does.
Trying to convince herself that sin is something else and that she doesn't have a problem that she, if she'd admit she has a problem, would then have an obligation to work on.

Anonymous said...

Get real dude! It's 40 years after the Moon landing. Are we supposed to believe that the entire economics profession hasn't the vaguest idea that planned obsolescence has been going on in automobiles for decades? John Kenneth Galbraith wrote about it in The Affluent Society in 1959.

The number of cars in the US passed 200,000,000 in 1995. Has it ever occurred to you to ask how much American consumers lose on the Depreciation of automobiles every year? How can any competent economist not have thought to ask a question that obvious long ago. It's the SCIENCE of economics. LOL

The system depends on the ignorant not recognizing the lies. But that practically requires not thinking these days.