Lies

 

No, it’s not always sunny in the San Juan Range. There are clouds and rain. It gets dark, too, roughly every 24 hours.

 

I’m sorry if you misunderstood. I didn’t mean to give you the wrong impression, when I posted those pretty pictures.

 

And while I’m on the subject: it’s not all sweetness and light in the figurative sense, either. A person may be on vacation. He may have the means to loll around, blogging and looking out at the beautiful views. No matter: he’s still susceptible to the megrims. Even more susceptible, as the late Walker Percy observed and pondered in several novels and essays:

Why do people often feel bad in good environments and good in bad environments? … [Why is it that a self] feels so bad in the best of all possible environments — say, a good family and a good home in a good neighborhood in East Orange on a fine Wednesday afternoon — and so finds itself secretly relishing bad news, assassinations, plane crashes, and the misfortunes of neighbors, and even comes secretly to hope for catastrophe, earthquake, hurricane, wars, apocalypse …?

So let me be perfectly honest: a man is sometimes grumpy.

 

But this isn’t a post about bad moods.

 

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about deception and closely related ideas: dissimulation, untruths, dishonesty, lies, fraud. For my doctorate, I wrote on deceit in ancient Rome. After that, I worked for a couple of years in fundraising, which often relies upon socially sanctioned puffery, misdirection, and sometimes rank dishonesty. At the very same time, in my teaching and academic writing, I was trafficking in facts and aspiring to accuracy and truthfulness. Quite a contrast.

 

It’s a slippery subject. Here’s just one example of what I mean: Someone writes a short story. Pure fiction. And yet she asks us to believe that this highly subjective product of her individual imagination — her artful untruth, in other words — is truthful. That it expresses some general truth or truths about, say, human nature or relationships. How does that work?

 

No doubt you can think of other problematic areas. The so-called white lie, for example. The lie by a public official to advance some greater good. Failure to correct another person’s misapprehension or to supply her with crucial information: how are we to evaluate those situations? And what about self-deception?

 

Notwithstanding the difficulties, there’s a lot at stake. Obviously. The Romans had a word, fides, which was broad enough to encompass what we mean by belief, trust, faith, promise, confidence, credibility, trustworthiness, honesty, and truth. They held out fides as a national trait, and in fact they had an acute understanding of the line between acceptable and unacceptable dishonesty. Up to a point, a person was expected to be wary and cautious. If you proved to be a credulous fool, you deserved whatever you got. But it was also possible to become a person whom no one trusted. Not because you lied in court about your client’s unimpeachable character. Or made promises in a campaign that you had no intention of carrying out. Or assured the local gossip that your unmarried daughter was not pregnant. But because you crossed that line which, though invisible, everyone knew was right there.

 

Maybe there was a time when we could do the same, namely, point to the exact location of that line. If so, today we’re in danger of losing a sense of where it is. Where it should be. Many other people have already noted this: Stephen Colbert, for example, the comedian and late-night host, once coined the word “truthiness” to describe this new development.

 

That Colbert had to coin a word is telling. It’s trite to say so, but we’ve reached an inflection point in world history. The digital computer is our printing press, and just as mass literacy in Europe was disruptive and transformative, so is this new technology proving to be for us. With respect to mass literacy, we humans eventually developed and disseminated via schooling certain critical thinking techniques that enabled us — many of us, at any rate — to distinguish for ourselves, without the mediation of a lord or priest of other authority figure, the credible from the suspect, true from false.

 

Those same tools are not sufficient in this age of terabytes of data and virtual reality. They’re just not. And until we figure this out, we’re in real danger. Because if you’re thinking that the people you see on television screaming “Lock her up!” and “He’s a Muslim!” and “He’s in league with the terrorists!” are aware, at some level, how ridiculous they’re being, even if they’re allowing themselves to enjoy the passions of the moment, to vent their frustration and hatred, you’re deceiving yourself.

 

So, what happens when the words “true” and “false,” which presuppose the existence of a true commons, of a space in which individuals come together to hash out a shared and contingent and continually revised understanding of the meaning and content of those two words — what happens when “true” and “false” lose all relevance, all meaning, to be replaced by “mine” and “yours”?

 

I hope we don’t have to find out.

 

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