Monday, August 14, 2017

The Good That Can Come from Lies

We tell the truth. So much do we love the truth that we are not prey to any illusions. We believe that good mental health involves unflinching truth-telling. Nothing is worse than lying. Remember the mantra, “Bush lied; people died.” Truth tellers repeated it so many times that everyone ended up believing it. Even though it was a lie. It was a big lie… aka propaganda.

But, do you really always tell the truth? Aren’t we all willing to tell a few little white lies if it helps us to avoid conflict or even to hurt someone’s feelings? If a man tells his wife that she looks great, even though he thinks that her latest frock looks like sewn-together rags, is he rendering her a service or a disservice? If he were a fashion stylist he would be within his rights to tell her the dress makes her look like (insert suitably offensive term)…., but as a husband, his role is to show his love and affection for her. If he doesn’t tell her that he likes the way she looks, she will take it as a reflection of his feelings about her.  Besides, her dress might be eminently fashionable. Do you think that he really knows the difference?

Of course, there are limits. If she goes out to a party or a function and is seriously overdressed or underdressed, she will not take too much consolation from the fact that her husband signed off on the outfit. So, there are limits to lying. If your lie sets your wife up for public ridicule she will not likely be consoled by the fact that you were saying it to show that you love her.

OK, that was an easy example. Ian Leslie offers up many more in his Daily Mail article. In it he summarizes a new book wherein he argues that being good at telling lies is a good thing. 

Lies lubricate social commerce. Of course, if you lie on the witness stand or tell the police that you know nothing of the crime that you just witnessed, you will get yourself into some very serious trouble. 

Leslie limits himself to everyday social interactions. He does not address himself to the criminal justice system, because, when all is said and done, life is not a trial. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be. If yours feels like a trial, then perhaps you do not lie enough. You are too open and honest.

Leslie writes:

We lie by saying: ‘I’m fine, thanks’ when we’re feeling miserable. We lie when we say: ‘What a beautiful baby’ while inwardly noting its resemblance to an alien. And most of us have simulated anger, sadness, affection, or said: ‘I love you’ when we don’t mean it.

We tell our children to smile and look grateful for the soap-on-a-rope grandma has given them for their birthday — and perhaps we add that if they don’t, Father Christmas won’t come this year.

Not only do we make exceptions to the prohibition against lying, sometimes we approve of it. If a doctor tells a bereaved husband his wife died instantly in the crash, rather than the truth — that she spent her last hours in horrific pain — we applaud the doctor’s compassion.

We call the lies we like ‘white lies’, but asked to define what makes a lie white we soon get lost in qualifications and contradictions. And while traditionally we frown upon liars, I’d argue that lying is a basic human necessity.

Why do we lie? We do so in order to protect the feelings of other people. Perhaps this is a foreign notion, but in an age where we are all told that being truthful, about our feelings or our beliefs, puts us on the road to mental health… regardless of who we offend or of which dramas we provoke, it is worth saying:

Most of us have, at some point, perhaps in a cab or around the canteen table, found ourselves faced with a choice between pretending to agree with a political statement in which we don’t believe, or being honest and risking an unpleasant argument.

We have to deal with conflicts between our desire to be truthful and our standing in the community — and often we choose to do so by lying.

‘Yes, that dress looks lovely on you.’ ‘I’m so sorry I’m busy that night.’ ‘Of course I don’t mind!’ White lies are sticking plasters we put over everyday social problems, they’re the way we avoid hurting people’s feelings.

Leslie explains that the much studied placebo effect is real and is based on a lie. Also, when you compliment and flatter your spouse you might be telling a lie, but you are also encouraging her or him to feel better about him or herself. And you are affirming your commitment to your relationships. Not a small matter that.

Visionaries, Leslie says, tend to be inveterate liars. They concoct plans for unrealistic projects and pursue them until they fail or succeed. More often than not they fail, but if we did not have visionaries, people whose imagination had detached from reality, we would not know change. We would not have made all of the wondrous technological advances that power our civilization.

It feels like a stretch to call such people liars. They are idealists, imagining the world as it might be rather than settling for the world as it is.

Leslie continues:

We need over-optimistic entrepreneurs who are prepared to take irresponsible risks. Without people who are willing to ignore the prevailing wisdom and follow their instincts, many of our biggest innovations and creative leaps forward wouldn’t have happened.

Every year, thousands of people with vaulting ambitions start new companies in full awareness that the odds are against them achieving the kind of world-changing success of which they dream.

Most fail or settle for something less, but a few of those companies eventually become Apple or Starbucks or Dyson.

At every turn, it seems, life undermines any strict adherence to truth.

Like most good things, you can take lying too far. If you continue to believe in an illusion even when reality has told you that it cannot work, you are engaging in a higher form of self-deception. If you think that the spouse who beats you will change you are harboring a dangerous self-delusion. Like the business visionary who tries to do something that no one said could be done, you should know how to test your self-deceptions against reality. And you should always yield to the verdict of reality.


trigger warning said...
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Ares Olympus said...

Not much to disagree. Lies of opinion or preference clear!y are the smallest, since these are changeable.

And a trickier lie is about predicting the future when you don't have control over outcomes - like you can keep your health plan.

And in general any promise about the future has unknown factors. Until death do us part is idealistic, but there are honorable ways to break a contract.

Shame is another trick place of lies. One idea is lying causes guilt, while denying dishonesty causes shame. Some lies may be performance when everyone knows the emperor has no clothes while everyone pretends he does, except the idiot child who has been firmly taught to never lie.

Sam L. said...

Ares, that "you can keep your health plan" statement? That's why the Dems wrote the whole thing, excluded the GOP, and Nancy Pelosi said "we have to pass it to find out what's in it".

James said...

I stand corrected.