A Brief History of Lying

The research for the book I’m working on has gotten me thinking about the lies we tell. From our early childhood, we are counseled to always tell the truth.  George Washington is our model for that until we’re much older and find out there were probably no cherry trees in his life.  As children, we quickly learn the value in our little falsehoods. We lie to stay out of trouble, to avoid hurt feelings, to get out of doing what we don’t want to do. It’s habit forming. The little white lies (why white?) may be considered good lies.  They are either the lies that don’t really hurt anybody or are self-protective.  Does it really matter if you put your yucky peas in your shoe when you said you ate them? Or you really did hit your brother first or you only practiced the piano for ten minutes rather than thirty?  We gradually move from there to bigger ones that may start tarnishing your character.  Or not.  Maybe it makes you a more interesting person. We try things out on our friends, embellish the stories a bit so they are more tantalizing, and we tell those stories so often we believe them ourselves.

Lying is so pervasive that we now have character education in elementary schools.  And later on, the college papers you say you wrote have to be checked for plagiarism via websites like turnitin.com.  What does that say about us?

But the reason for this blog is more about my disgust at institutionalized lies. It is, of course, not a new phenomenon.  Maybe I’m just late in seeing how pervasive it is.  In the book I’m working on, one of my characters is a Gulf War veteran who is very sick.  I’ve been reading reams of testimony from soldiers who were exposed to chemical agents that have left them with a myriad of illnesses and have resulted in birth defects among their children. Yet, the country that sent them to war has put up a wall of deception.  It was somehow decided that none of the medical and psychological needs were a result their experience in Kuwait and Iraq.  It’s the handling of Agent Orange (dioxin) exposure in Vietnam all over again.

What color might those nastier lies be?  Red? Black? Purple? How can you be a physician, having taken an oath to do no harm, sit across from a suffering vet and dismiss his symptoms and their causes. All the lip service paid to our soldiers is just window dressing.  I try to imagine Colin Powell, Norman Schwarzkopf, a CIA director, maybe the director of Walter Reed hospital, and the other agency stakeholders, sitting around a conference table making up numbers and facts to create a policy of deniability. I wonder if it would help make the case if an actual soldier with a ruined life sat in.  Could they then maintain their callousness and wrongdoing?

Crazy.  In the Gulf War, our soldiers were exposed to chemical agents, and the responsible agencies said there were none, that whatever protective gear they were given was sufficient.  Then we go back to fight a second war on the premise that we need to destroy these weapons and there are none.  It’s more like theater of the absurd than intelligence.

Fiction finds a good home in the liars among us whether we tell white lies or whoppers. I just learned a great word for that. Fabulist. A person who lies or invents. It has so much more panache than liar, don’t you think? I like nothing better than sitting at my computer making stuff up. The difference is I know it’s made up and so does everybody else. I may root my stories in fact but that’s where my reality stops. If you’re reading a work of fiction, you don’t expect it to be true.

I think we started getting a little murky when we all of a sudden have a new genre, creative non-fiction.  Come on.  Make up your mind.  Is it true or isn’t it?  Hmmm.

There is a new book out called The Lifespan of a Fact.  It came about with the collision of two points of view. A writer felt he needed to alter the truth to make it a more interesting essay.  His fact checker did not agree.  While changing numbers from four to eight to make a point isn’t a game changer, it goes to how much can you change something and have it still be true.  Does the creative part of non-fiction come to play here?  I think by now we can all agree that memoir is as true as the memory of the person writing it.  Sit around the table with your siblings and you are reminded that memory is a personal matter.  Memory, truth, unintentional lies, and some intentional—all are what make us human.

I get that.  I understand that when people want something really badly, they might say anything to make that happen. It might not be right but it’s understandable.  I also understand the waves of memory that ripple and recede over the course of a lifetime.  But what I don’t understand is perpetuating lies that harm others, telling and retelling a group lie. That never can be explained away as being for the greater good.

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2 thoughts on “A Brief History of Lying

  1. Some lies are good. Despite what we’re taught as children (Thou Shall Not Lie) the truth is that we are also taught social courtesy. My worry is when a lie (or I guess more nicely a misunderstanding) becomes a social truth–like when it was believed that all gay people were pedophiles or that blind children were stupid. People, to some extent, will push what they want to believe r have been conditioned to believe, despite objective truth.

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