Friday, October 23, 2009

Are We All Just a Bunch of Liars?

A man thinks that his wife is overweight, yet he tells her she looks great. Is he lying or is he being tactful?

A woman thinks that her husband is a mediocre lover, yet she tells him that he is a sexual dynamo? Is she lying or is she protecting his self-confidence?

A married man finds himself fantasizing about his intern. If he does not tell his wife, is he lying or respecting her feelings?

According to Elizabeth Bernstein such minor-grade deceptions, fibs, and white lies are the stuff of good relationships. Complete openness and honesty is a relationship killer. Link here.

Surely, she is correct. She is aiming, I believe, at another, more intriguing, point. If these verbal gestures are the stuff of good relationships, why are we calling them lies? Do we really believe that in an ideal relationship you can and should tell your significant other everything that passes through your mind? Do we believe that when we, inevitably, fail to live up to this impossible standard, we should excoriate ourselves for being liars?

It would be retrograde to label ourselves miserable and chronic sinners. Perhaps, we have made lying and its cousin hypocrisy a class of sins for which we have to atone constantly? (For what it's worth lying does not count among the seven deadly sins.)

Have we found a way to make ourselves into a merry band of moral flagellants, worshiping at the altar of the god of Truth, needing to do penance for having violated its impossible standards.

Isn't this how a culture takes a series of conversational virtues, the lubricants of good relationships, and turns them into vices?

Being tactful, considerate, respectful, courteous... these fundamental virtues have been sacrificed on the altar of the god of Truth. Properly speaking, it is a form of idolatry. In the flush of our idealism we have been tricked into worshiping a false god.

In fact, Truth must be the ultimate in false gods.

Which reminds me of Jim Carrey's great movie, "Liar, Liar."

I assume everyone has seen it. I assume that everyone remembers it since it was, by my lights, hysterically funny. If not, it is about a man who cannot tell a lie, not in the George Washington sense of accepting responsibility, but in the sense of being forced to say everything that comes to mind, without any considerations for anyone's feelings or his own professional duties.

The results make for a delightful farce.

But why do we believe that we ought to share everything that passes through our minds? Do we imagine that all of our thoughts and dreams have an equal value, and are equally worthy of anyone's attention? To imagine that the entire contents of our minds are worthy of anyone's interest-- and that includes our own-- is surely an absurd proposition. To imagine that our fantasies provide relevant insights into who we really are is to have overdosed on psychotherapy.

How did we arrive at this level of moral deformity? The man to whom we owe it is none other than... Sigmund Freud.

The notion that there is something therapeutic, even desirable, in learning to say whatever comes to mind, without regard for the pain or boredom you are inflicting on others comes down to us directly from Freud's office.

Jim Carrey's film was simply showing what would happen if you took the basic rule of psychoanalysis seriously enough to make it a way of life. After all, if you have spent years lying on the couch saying whatever comes to mind, how is it humanly possible for you to leave your hard-earned skill in your analyst's office.

Just in case you thought that the therapy culture arose out of a desire to heal or to treat or to cure... now we know that it was a stealth effort to transform social values, to make us feel guilty about being tactful, discrete, considerate, and respectful.

In the hands of the mavens of the therapy culture these have all been transformed into offenses against the god of Truth.

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