Why Do We Lie?

CrossedFingersby David Norris5/19/15
Lincoln was fond of asking, “If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have?” “Five!”, his audience would invariably respond. “The correct answer”, he would point out, “is four; calling a tail a leg does not make it a leg, calling lies truth doesn’t make them truth.”

There is nothing new under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 1:9

Why do we lie? This is neither a rhetorical or theoretical question. It has troubled my mentation since I was a boy, and still does to this day, now in my fifties.

My mother didn’t have a problem with me slipping up and making mistakes as a child, she knew what ‘little boys were made of’. Raising my brother and me alone brought that reality home on a daily basis. She would never condone lying though; her admonishment to “tell the truth and shame the devil” still rings in my ears. Being raised in the Catholic faith and attending parochial school drove this message home even further.

[pullquote]…how much lying is a part of our daily lives. That we lie to the extent we do was surprising to me. There is a spectrum of lying.[/pullquote] Disregarding my own trail of lies and fabrications as a child, in my pre-teens, I began to notice inconsistencies in the things people said, especially adults, in particular my mother. It was if someone flipped a switch in me, and suddenly I was ‘gifted’ with the ability to recognize dishonesty. It was a subtle sensitivity at first, but later came more fully on-line when I reached high school.…“She’s lying…they’re lying”.

Once in high school most of the adults around me became suspect and could not be trusted. I could understand why so many of my peers lashed out against ‘the man’, and talked about revolution and bringing down ‘the establishment’. Some wore berets, and shouted slogans and put up posters. Others went to secret meetings and spouted ideology. It never crossed my naïve mind that my peers and I were being misled, just by a different set of adults, with a different set of lies.

Conveniently during this period, I continued to avoid examining my own deceptions and prevarications.

When I reached my thirties, I had the good fortune of meeting a mentor who exceeded my passion for knowledge and the pursuit of understanding. I entered into a period of deep study which included an examination of world history and human civilization, as well as a deeper scrutiny of myself. As we peeled back the layers of time, and the layers of self, I realized that much of what I thought I knew about humankind in general and myself in particular was no more than assorted presumptions and opinions.

In many ways, the history of humanity is a history of lying. I had not realized, until examining my own behavior, how much lying is a part of our daily lives. That we lie to the extent we do was surprising to me. There is a spectrum of lying. Sometimes we will lie reflexively about innocuous things unnecessarily because it is our habit, while other times we boldly wield falsehoods like poisons used to corrupt, and swords used to conquer.

The more I sought out the truth, the more was revealed in layer upon layer of lies. I began to appreciate what my mentor had said, that without a certain level of maturity, intelligence, and self-awareness, many cannot handle truth.

There are at least 40 words in the English language that describe lying.

Lying rivals baseball as our national past-time. Not to say that the United States holds a monopoly on deceitfulness. One needs only look to Russia and China, as two prime examples of leaders in lying. Clearly we are not the only nation on earth that practices the art of subterfuge. However, the U.S. has certainly created a particular refinement of dishonesty; here we call it the industries of advertising and marketing. Those in politics and government make use of these ‘technologies’ on a daily basis.

The most damaging and heinous lies we tell, are those we tell to ourselves.

Recently I heard a story about a local high school choir that was putting on an original opera written by their director. At the last minute the show was postponed from its premiere. Apparently one person (who some say carried a grudge against members of the choir) called an organization by the name of “Americans United” to complain that the opera had (Christian) religious themes in it.

Seeing as this organization’s mission was to ‘protect the population’ from any infringement of the separation between church and state, it contacted the school systems administration and threatened them with a law suit if the opera was performed at the school.

The more I read about it, the more upset I became.  I found it ironic that one of the hot-button issues in American schools these days is ‘bullying’, and in this case a group of local school kids were being bullied by a national organization. The spineless high school administrator that was tasked with protecting them, eventually kow-towed to the Washington bully, “grateful to them” for having allowed for a ‘compromise’.  This national organization is lying through its manipulative re-interpretation of the second amendment, and upon examination shows ties to the communist party revealing its true agenda.  The high school bureaucrat also lied by trying to spin this as some kind of ‘victory’ for the school.   How come this case of bullying and lying isn’t making national headlines?

I wonder what the kids involved think about all this? I know many of their parents and members of the community are really upset. Are the kids looking at us adults thinking, “these adults don’t have our backs, they can’t be trusted”? Is a cycle repeating itself?

Humans are social creatures that seek to organize themselves. They organize under various schools of thought, ideologies, economies, cultural traditions, religions, and charismatic personalities….tribes basically. Each one believing it is special and important. We are insecure creatures and often organize out of fear….”what will happen if…”? We need to feel right, feel superior, feel safe and secure.

The current government, so-called left wing progressives (a.k.a. : marxists, socialists, communists), is the trending ideology, they are the ‘tribe’ on the move, the “ones to watch”. They do not see themselves as destroyers or corrupters, but rather as saviors. They passionately believe in their mission. Unfortunately, no matter what their best intentions may have been, they are only paving a utopian road to hell by becoming that which they sought to get rid of….bullies and liars.

We do not see in our impassioned zealotry; that we are behaving just like those we railed against growing up as rebellious teens.

We have become the new bullies. And our children, if they are paying attention, are witnessing us behave this way.

We lie to protect, to win, to control, to be safe and secure, to continue holding on to our belief systems. We lie to keep our opinions and assumptions together, and to protect our previous scores of lies. We lie because we are afraid. We lie to survive.

Is much of humanities thrashing about over which way is the ‘right way’ to follow, ultimately just about that, survival, and nothing more?

With all our important sounding words and noble ideals, are we just fooling ourselves?

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16 Responses to Why Do We Lie?

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Thanks, David. I found this article to be excellent. My official critique would be that you nicely walked the edge of analysis without delving into the kind of intellectualism whereby it is very easy to create castles in the clouds, to speak many words (that on the surface, seem and sound logical) but to say very little. Not an easy thing to do.

    I think this part is particularly astute:

    Sometimes we will lie reflexively about innocuous things unnecessarily because it is our habit, while other times we boldly wield falsehoods like poisons used to corrupt, and swords used to conquer.

    Who hasn’t run into a habitual liar? And many of these people seem to merely tell little white lies as a kind of gloss they put over themselves like an all-pervasive and airy perfume. Perhaps they wouldn’t lie about the big stuff (although they don’t set a good precedent in that regard). But they seem congenitally incapable of not exaggerating or lying about small things. And I’m not talk about fish stories whereby real events are wink-wink, nudge-nudge infused with a bit of story-telling personality and acumen.

    I began to appreciate what my mentor had said, that without a certain level of maturity, intelligence, and self-awareness, many cannot handle truth.

    This may be completely true. I don’t know. I’d like to think that truthful people are more mature, intelligent, and self-aware. But we can throw “intelligent” out right away as correlating with honesty. I think intelligent people (Bill Clinton, for example) can be the best liars. But certainly self-awareness intersects this idea. I think a large aspect of lying (especially convincing lying) is being able to lie (to some extent) to oneself. A lack of self-awareness probably helps in this regard.

    And this is where we delve into politics and social theory as well, for there are now well-entrenched lies in our society that are beneficial to many people. So we continue playing this game (or they do) that there is no lie. As Orwell said, “In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

    As for maturity correlating with honesty, that’s another one I’m going to scratch my head about. Guile, pretense, and other such attributes tend to be added over time via experience (maturity, if you will). On the other hand, children at a certain age are often humorously and painfully honest. Only later do they seem to learn that it is both advantageous to lie and that they live in a world where others will stomp painfully on their feelings and their self if they dangle too much truth out there for others to get their claws into.

    I think the key word is “integrity,” a kind of love of truth. It’s the kind of person who finds a wallet and returns it with all the money intact, if only because they could not live with themselves as the kind of dirt-bag who would take advantage of another person like that.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    A crucial aspect to a certain form of political lying is the matter of the famous ends-means controversy that has concerned so many (Arthur Koestler’s novels against the communism he once espoused were intended to explore the question). Those who convince themselves that they have the solution to all our problems are easily able to convince themselves that those who get in their way must be stopped by Any Means Necessary.

    Note that T. H. White discussed this at one point in The Once and Future King — when Merlin, Arthur, and Kay discuss when it’s legitimate to go to war, Kay suggests having a good cause only to be rebuked by Merlin. Similarly, one might note that an episode (I believe the final one) of The Man From UNCLE also explored this question; it involved an UNCLE member seeking to use brain control to eliminate evil and eager to persuade Napoleon Solo that this was justifiable (though in reality he was actually being duped by THRUSH).

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Is much of humanities thrashing about over which way is the ‘right way’ to follow, ultimately just about that, survival, and nothing more?

    Good question. One of the extraordinarily difficult aspects for people to wrap their minds around (hmm…perhaps we are evolved from monkeys) is the idea that there is indeed a material component to who we are. So, yes, lying often is of material benefit (short-term it may sometimes be, and a non-existent advantage it may sometimes be… many lies simply get us into worse trouble).

    It is thus very easy for the monkey-mind to parse lying exclusively through the prism of material gain.

    And certainly everyone can understand the impetus to lie to cover an inconvenient truth. Maybe one has made a relatively trivial mistake (in the scheme of things) but an embarrassing one. Or maybe a bolder lie is trotted out as a first defense against negligence or corruption. I think most of us can understand this impulse because most of us have done this . . . more than once.

    But there’s also an aspect where lying, rather than being a tool, becomes who you are. There are dishonest people out there. There are people who seems to have been born malignant or become malignant. That’s a question above my pay grade. But there is a moral aspect to lying that has little to do with material gain. There do seem to be people who like assaulting us with lies….just for the sheer perverse joy of it.

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    There’s another aspects of lying (a great subject to bring up, David) that strikes my brain, particularly after reading this blog post by Thomas Lifson at American Thinker:Report: Staff Fleeing Clinton Foundation as Chelsea takes over. Like Hillary, this is one entitlement-minded, spoiled-brat person who is arrogant and short-tempered. This jibes with what I read about Chelsea in Gary Aldrich’s Unlimited Access.

    The point being, we tend to think of lying as binary events. Person X lies about act Y. But lying is much more pervasive than that. A person’s entire life — indeed, a whole political party — can become a lie. And this kind of lie — pretending that Kings and other royalty were superior human beings entitled to different and special treatment — was addressed at our founding. Although Thomas Paine went on to get suckered in by the Humanist lie of the French Revolutionaries, he did much to attack the lie of the supposed divine right of kings which set the stage for our self-governing republican nation.

    But, good golly, you can’t swing a dead cat in this culture today without hitting upon the preeminence of the lie of self-importance. And if enough people agree that someone is not just talented but superior (such as Chelsea Clinton), they share in the lie. They get a gloss off of the lie. “I like Rock Star X, therefore I’m cool too.”

    Thus it has probably always been. Human beings are fragile creatures, easily damaged materially, spiritually, and psychologically. We dream large dreams while often up to our arms in the muck of everyday life. It is therefore very very appealing to identify with “royalty” of some type and participate in the pleasing lie.

    That’s not to say that we shouldn’t honor and respect people of real accomplishment and look to them as role models. We should! But that’s certainly not what is in play when people pay $1000 per plate to listen to one of the biggest liars in our nation’s history, Bill Clinton, or even when they tattoo the name of their favorite rock band on their chests.

    All this self-puffery is leading to our entire nation becoming a lie, if only because we have disconnected ourselves from the truth: the truth of economics, the truth of families, and many would say the truth of a Creator. We have chucked it all to pursue our own self-royalty in one form or another. We are therefore prone to this same lie in others, which is probably as good of an explanation as any for how we ended up (twice) with Obama, an inherent liar and deceiver.

    Integrity, like many other human attributes or pursuits (music, for instance) is not necessarily of any material or survival advantage. But for many it is unthinkable living life without it as a guiding principle. Integrity requires holding something higher than the mere opinion of other people, as central as those opinions are to how we must get by. Integrity is a clear sign that there are higher aims for man than merely surviving from day to day, trying always to get the best momentary advantage.

    But even a love of truth and integrity can be little succor when you see just how well many people are doing by living the lie, if only the lie built upon cultural groupthink which chases ego, a sense of superiority, and ultimately insists on partaking in a type of royalty. No doubt some of this stems from the self-esteem movement where it is ingrained always that we must be “so special.”

    • Pst4usa says:

      Great article David; you can call same sex unions mariage, but they will not become that. Just another example of the lies being pushed upon us by the leftist to tear down decency and society. People on the right are either to weak or to cowardly to call out the left.
      Sorry to add a political tone Brad, you are correct in what I suspect you are thinking now. This post is about much more than political lies, it is about every aspect of our lives. Your comment:

      “Integrity is a clear sign that there are higher aims for man than merely surviving from day to day, trying always to get the best….”

      fill in the blank! Money is not always the end goal, thinking back to my teenage years I may have stretched the truth for… um let’s say something non monetary, (I think Sandy will forgive me, my wife that is).

      Holding something higher than the opinion of others, as you put it, is one of the keys. I think I have told you the line I grew up with, “Your opinion of me is none my business”, well I have now learned the rest of that line, “My opinion of me is none of my business”. When I combine those two, my life gets a whole lot easier.

  5. Anniel says:

    This is a wonderful self-examination article. It is so easy to accept and give the comforting lies, the ones that seem to harm no one, and leave everyone happy. But one thing I have learned is that children ALWAYS know the lies within their own families, so parents must model the value of truth to their children and grandchildren, including teaching the founding of this nation to those children. Pointing out political lies to children can’t hurt, and it might just be a survival tool in the long run. Dinner table discussions can be both informing and fun.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      When asked how I feel, I often given the answer “Alive.” It has the virtue of being true, and in certain circumstances can be inspiring (as in several of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter novels, and for that matter in the movie For Your Eyes Only). Sometimes I don’t feel like saying that I feel good when I really don’t — but I also know hardly anyone asking that questions wants a litany of complaints, either.

  6. David — welcome to Stubborn Things — I’m so glad you sent this in; it has certainly proved to be a good conversation starter.

    My two cents worth: We buy the lie because we’ve already denied the truth. We are built to believe something — our souls, like the rest of nature, abhor a vacuum and will suck in whatever’s handy as soon as we kick truth out. Then we’re stuck having to lie and lie and lie in order to shore up the shaky ideas we’ve adopted. It isn’t pretty.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Well, when you get right down to it, that’s the point of the nose-extending scene in Pinocchio. Maintaining a lie becomes increasingly complex. It’s so much easier to be truthful — but so convenient to lie if you think you can get away with it. And since most liberals receive little or no accountability from the synoptic media, their natural inclination to lie is encouraged — whereas at least some conservatives may hesitate to lie (even aside from actually having a conscience, unlike liberal ideologues) because they’re likelier to pay for it.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Ya know, I suppose we all can’t live without a world view of some kind. The world is here. We view it. It’s inevitable.

        And crowd-pleasing world-views (perhaps one’s that indulge one’s sins or forgive one’s sins) are bound to be popular. Setting aside the possibility of the Atonement, Leftism offers various ways to absolve one’s environmental, gender, racial, or capitalist crimes (crimes as defined by the Left, of course). In order to do so you have to swallow down their cultish beliefs.

        Where does normal enculturation end and a true cult begin? It’s a fuzzy edge, I’ll grant you. But I do think we see a widespread cult of the Left. And perhaps sometimes it’s not the best descriptor to call it a lie, per se. It’s just a goofy set of beliefs that people have strapped on like a jetpack and there’s no getting off that ride without a radical shift in beliefs. And as long as this set of good time rock-and-roll beliefs keeps paying off, who is going to opt for the more discomforting aspects of reality?

        This is where, for instance, I think true Christianity is distinguished from the good time rock-and-roll variety. Authentic Christians and Catholics deeply understand the remedial effects of necessary suffering. And some suffering is just necessary. Some pains unavoidable.

        There’s no way, for instance, that if you rolled the dice and started the church again today that a cross would be its main symbol. In fact, as a graphic artist, I take somewhat humorous notice of how many church names/logos have entirely dispensed with either the cross or an overt reference to Christ. Would you believe me (given the topic at hand) that I basically (somewhat diplomatically, but you know me) told a pastor recently that the logos some hifalutin agency did for him were all junk? The one he picked didn’t even have a cross in it. And it’s not so much that you must have a cross in it. But the egregious part is that the cross was being (in my view) dishonestly pushed out the back door. In place of the cross was a compass rose.

        Well, his logo now has a cross on it. And he wondered how an agnostic (as he thinks of me) can work up such feelings for the subject. Well, they say that Christ will know his own. I’m not one of those no-labels guys. But, Jesus, what passes for Christianity these days is … well, back to the subject at hand .. a lie. As is so much else, including our Supreme Court, our President, most of Congress, and perhaps 3/4 of the state of California. (I’m surely underestimating.)

        The lies now are so deep and ingrained about so many things, I find myself clamming up…even amongst friends. There are just not many people on the Classic American FM wavelength. I’m just tired of it. If someone comes to me and wants to know what’s what, I’ll tell them. But everyone already thinks they know, so truth-telling is somewhat superfluous. I just smile. I somewhat join the “Smiles, everyone, smiles” crowd and hope the mob doesn’t eat me.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      My two cents worth: We buy the lie because we’ve already denied the truth. We are built to believe something — our souls, like the rest of nature, abhor a vacuum and will suck in whatever’s handy as soon as we kick truth out.

      That’s worth at least half a buck, Deana. 😀

      I don’t think ignorance itself is necessarily a willful sin. We’re all in various states of ignorance about different things. And it’s easy enough to be honestly deceived about something. For instance, not all people, or likely even most people, who believe in global warming are stupid or willfully blind. But it’s what they’re taught in school. It’s what they see on TV. It’s what they hear from the politicians and the culture at large. It’s what some very noisy scientists are trumpeting. Humans have an in-built predilection to acquiesce to authority (for better and for worse). And they are overwhelmed by this message.

      Still, I would say there is a distinction to be made between normal ignorance/absorbing normal cultural prejudices (which include the deceitful marketing of others) and the kind of lies so prevalent today. These lies are flattering lies. These lies are tailor-made for the self-esteem, gold-star, I’m-okay-you’re-okay culture. Having determined that all hard knocks are the result of someone else’s injustice, we expect good time rock-and-roll all of the time. Our predilection now is to believe anything to keep our airy heads up in the clouds and away from reality — a rality that somewhere, deep down, we know we abandoned long ago. What goes up must come down, but perhaps we can just hover on feel-good lies.

      That’s my two-cents worth. And, as you said, we indeed have to “lie and lie and lie in order to shore up the shaky ideas we’ve adopted.” I couldn’t agree more.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        This is why I differentiate between the Inner Party (who are liars) and the Outer Party (who are the dupes of the Inner Party). The former know exactly what they’re doing; the latter actually have good intentions — but we know what those can pave.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          I think that’s a good and fair distinction, Timothy. And on the bottom tier of dupes you can perhaps further subdivide them into willing dupes (aka “willful blindness”) and just the rank indoctrinated.

    • Pst4usa says:

      Well said Deana!

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