The current political discourse and fact-checking of the candidates got me thinking about our individual and collective cultures of the lie. It would seem that what is deemed a lie – and what kind of lie – is very contextual and nuanced.
The lies that are acceptable and common practice in family culture may not coincide with community culture, workplace culture, or political culture. Even the word “lie” is uncomfortable. There’s an implication of consciousness, of intention, to be untruthful or even malicious in the word “lie,” so we use the word judiciously. It’s a judgmental word. But to compensate, we do have lots of language to express the concept of saying less than the truth without the jarring indictment of the word “lie.”
There are half-truths, known in my house growing up, as “fudging,” which entails conscious exaggeration or minimizing. There’s lying through your teeth, which involves outright fabrication with the added insult of being a lie to your face. There are the seemingly innocuous lies of omission and the soft-pedal of the fib. Lies can be flim-flam, hogwash, or a tall tale; white or bald-faced, also known as a barefaced lie. There’s horse hockey, horseshit, or just plain bullshit.
There’s even a word for lying electronically – the Butler Lie – a term researchers at Cornell University’s Social Media Lab came up with to describe things we say that aren’t true to end conversations and/or save face. For example, sending a text saying, “My battery is about to go” when it’s not, or, “Stuck in traffic” when you really just left the house. My grandmother used to refer to lies as “stories” and I think she was right. A lie is a story, a narrative, we tell to ourselves and other people.
We learn about lies, their uses and flavors, by watching our parents and other adults navigate the world, and thus learn what is an acceptable lie and what is not, as well as whom it is acceptable –or necessary – to lie to. We learn to make assessments of who can be trusted and what kind of conflict we can handle when it comes to the consequences of what we say. Lies not only let the teller off the hook, they can also give the listener an escape. Again, very contextual social and emotional terrain is involved.
We also learn to lie by our experiences of telling the truth. If the truth gets you in trouble… then, hell yeah, you learn to omit, agree with inaccurate assumptions, and creatively fabricate, as acts of self-preservation. To do otherwise might even be considered stupid.
So are the lies our politicians tell intelligent self-preservation or cowardly means to an end?
Haystack lies seem to be the stock in trade of politicians. When a politician launches into a long, fast-paced answer or statement, our ears should perk up. A true fact may be embedded in there somewhere – the needle in the haystack. But the truth that may be included is difficult to detect and identify. Everything said might be taken as true-by-association with that one truth in the whole tangled mess. And the spin goes both ways. One inaccuracy or misstatement, one lie by any of its various names, can undermine the truth of everything else said.
The second presidential debate had its share of muddy assertions and omissions.
In the debate, Romney charged that Obama and the administration did not label the attack of our Benghazi U.S. consulate quickly and appropriately as a terrorist attack. In his Rose Garden speech regarding the attack President Obama concluded by stating that:
“No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation,
alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”
President Obama never made the direct statement that this was a terrorist attack. However, the context would lead us – and the world – to infer that yes, he was calling it a terrorist attack. Could it be that Obama was relying on the context and our predisposed assumptions to give his words their meaning and weight, and at the same time, reduce reactivity and the potential stir for immediate military action? Seems likely to me. Do I want the President of the United States to have this ability for nuance? Damn straight.
And then there’s Governor Romney’s binders full of women. I would love to parse it out, truly, honestly, I would. No lie. But there are no half-truths or hairs to split in Romney’s story. It’s just that. A story, made up to change our minds about who Romney is and where he stands when it comes to his track record and sensitivity on women’s issues.
But why is Obama’s minimizing and Romney’s tall-tale necessary? Do our politicians lie to us because they don’t trust us? What do we do – or not do – as citizens to earn or lose the trust of our public officials? If we shoot the messenger, then can we blame them for the verbal duck and weave? Do the consequences we mete out only serve to make them better liars?
Perhaps we might admit that dressing up or dumbing down the truth is sometimes a collaboration, an implicit deal, that allows everyone involved some degree of escape from conflict, consequences, and accountability. If the truth is being “finessed,” if the information we give and get is so carefully crafted and edited, then what does that say about our personal psyches and our collective identity as Americans?
I do believe that we evolve behaviors to adapt and fit in with our culture and environment. The protection our stories provide is sometimes necessary and even appropriate. I’m not saying we should abolish all of the not quite accurate stories or outright lies we tell ourselves and others. But I am in favor of more awareness and asking some questions, not just about what we’re hearing, but about our own part in the creation and maintenance of our individual, family, and collective narratives – that sometimes include lies.