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I want to write about lying. I hate it. I try not to do it. I do polish the truth sometimes when I’m trying to support and encourage someone. I say things like, “What an interesting perspective but it needs development” when I’m worrying: “This person doesn’t understand the basics of good writing at all.” (I recognize the hypocrisy here, and I’m working on it.) But I don’t lie—especially not to hurt anyone.
I’m not especially good. That’s not why I don’t lie. I don’t lie for the same reason I don’t munch on apple seeds or drink Drano. Lies eventually destroy the best parts of you. Recently, the New York Times featured a report that even small lies matter. As you lie more frequently, your brain loses the ability to identify lies, so you lie more, lie bigger, and don’t even notice. Look around. It’s true. We’re losing our ability to respond appropriately to lies. We stop requiring truth. Our laws lose their teeth. We give ourselves permission to live in denial.
We train ourselves to ignore lies in order to get ahead. In school (most schools), you must know the answer the teacher wants if you want to do well. (It’s often not the only defensible response.) You have to be able to second-guess the test designers. You have to be able to please, even when that necessitates lying. The ends justify the means. People-pleasing is the grease of social interaction.
Lies create power and wealth. They also create victims. Power and wealth and victims often go together. You can seize a person’s power by telling half-truths (called “spin” or “bullying”) that make that person appear to be wrong or evil or stupid or whatever. Half-truths are extremely difficult to fight. People believe what they hear even if it’s discredited later. You can defeat the honest truth with well-told lies (the way cigarettes gained so much influence).
You can convince people to hurt themselves with lies. Getting people to act against their self interest requires first, that those people don’t want take the trouble (or can’t) to find out what their self interest is, and second, that you tell them what they want to hear whether it makes sense or not. Predators who use the gullible rely on that fact. They know many people don’t mind lies written with words that make them feel good.
Lies also destroy relationships. Although the statistics seem to indicate that fewer people are concerned with long-term relationships (they prefer to change partners), lying makes good long-term relationships unlikely. Eventually, somebody discovers the truth. What is love without trust? A broken vessel. Or maybe just a plastic snap-top container. People may stay together as friends, lovers, partners, co-workers because it’s convenient, but the emotional glue of the relationship has come unstuck.
I know I’m not the only person out there who isn’t sure she can survive more lies. I used to ask my children to be honest even when the story wasn’t a good one, so we could tackle the reality of the situation together. I told them I can’t help but take lying personally—even when it’s being done by some con artist on the phone. It’s offensive. It’s an insult. But lying works. PT Barnum used to boast that there’s a fool born every minute. I don’t want to be a fool. I hate lies. And that’s the truth.