According to author James Stewart, lying is a national crisis. This undermines “the ideals of fair play, integrity, and trust to which people of goodwill everywhere aspire,” according to the author, and he’s made a good career out of speaking on this topic. His book “Tangled Webs” is selling well.
But is lying worse than it ever has been, as Steward insists? I think so, but at a slightly different depth than he has plumbed.
There is little doubt that much of our world is based on lies. There isn’t an economic stat that doesn’t have a bit of fudge hidden in it somewhere to make the picture look a bit better. Politicians routinely say things that don’t actually make any sense, such as the famed “Ground Zero Mosque” that was neither at Ground Zero nor a Mosque. Corporations routinely keep several sets of books, one for the taxman and one for the investment world, showing different definitions of “profit” where one has to be a lie.
But there is more to it than that, I think.
Consider for a moment different kinds of lies that surround us. There is the directly, objectively false statement that can be shown to be incorrect that Stewart’s book uses as its underpinning, giving examples of Bernie Madoff, Barry Bonds, Martha Stewart, and Scooter Libby. But these seem quite rare.
Then, there is what we might call BS, or (CowPuckey) as I tried to euphemistically refer to it. That’s when someone says something that is not a direct lie because it has no relationship with the truth whatsoever. The speaker doesn’t care if it is true – and only makes the statement because it advances their cause. It’s pretty easy to spot most of the time because if it sounds too stupid to be true, it probably is. Michelle Bachmann does this nearly constantly.
But even with the epidemic of (CowPuckey), I don’t think that’s the most corrosive problem yet. There are many examples of a simple kernal of something definitely, provably true that have been ripped entirely from their context to prove a point that ultimately makes no sense at all.
For example, a lot of people reasonably concerned about government spending have lately been crossing many lines and started insisting that FDR’s New Deal actually made the Great Depression worse, or that Obama has done the same, based on economic performance immediately after the policies were adopted. No one could reasonably believe that an economy as large as ours turns around in just a few years, but genuinely true data is show outside of that context as proof that those working on the problem are incompetent.
The epidemic of lies has one central problem – a lack of Connection.
The blatant lies are rare because everyone knows they might be checked out at some point. Most people still value their reputation or at least fear more direct punishment like jail time. There is still some level of personal responsibility for what we all say and do.
The other kinds of lies, (CowPuckey) and contextual lies, are based on isolation. A line of BS has, at its core, a lack of personal connection between people that comes from the speaker’s cavalier disregard for the intelligence of their listener. It is inherently selfish or even narcissistic. Factoids ripped from context are ideas disconnected from other ideas and provable facts, a more subtle type of disconnection because it is so impersonal. Want to check it out? It will take digging to make a case – and often a paragraph to counter a single sentence.
If there is an epidemic of lies, as I think there is, James Stewart hardly scratched the surface of the problem. His examples are all of people who lied openly and paid a price for their falsehoods. They are personal problems much more than they are cultural failings.
Lies as we have come to know them are nothing more than a symptom of a social structure that is falling apart, deeply disconnected and wallowing in selfishness.
Some of this is understandable, given the rapid rate of change and inability of most people to maintain a steady control over their own lives. But no matter what, the only real cure for a culture based on lies is to start understanding its own connections and how nothing actually happens in isolation any longer.
Lying is just one side of a pair of dice that have printed on them many social ills – including failing government, lack of business ethics, broken families, and lack of common courtesy. Only a loser puts these into the air and think there’s any way they’ll come out ahead. That lie, one of self-delusion, is another problem altogether.