I was lying on my bed, lost on the island world of Swiss Family Robinson, when I heard the crash. I jumped up and ran into the combination laundry room / bathroom of our new house and was overcome immediately by the bleach vapors. Broken shards of brown glass from the Clorox bottle were everywhere. I turned to get my mother up from her nap, but she was already behind me.
“Jerome Bernard Parent,” she yelled. “What did you do?”
Crap… all three names. This can’t be good, I thought.
“Nothing,” I answered. “ I was in my bedroom reading.”
I tried to help her clean up the mess but she wouldn’t let me. First out of concern for my asthmatic lungs and second because she was convinced I was somehow responsible.
“Do you expect me to believe this bleach bottle just fell off of the shelf by itself?”
“I don’t know what happened mama,” I said. Considering her belief in ghosts, angels, devils, and saints I hoped she would believe me and assign a supernatural cause to the accident. But it was not to be.
As soon as she had finished cleaning up the mess, she grabbed a short leather strap that used to be my dog’s collar and started whipping me with it. We fell into a painful pattern. She tried to get me to confess, I denied any wrongdoing and then she whipped me until her arm got tired. Then we’d repeat the process. A sensible person would have lied and stopped the beating. Unfortunately, I had just finished my confirmation classes and been confirmed as a true Catholic. A defender of the faith. Christ suffered for me and now I had to suffer rather than commit the sin of lying. For some reason Monsignor had been very adamant about the horribleness of lying. And I was a good student. So the beating went on for about forty-five minutes.
I finally cracked and admitted the knocking over the bottle. I couldn’t answer why or any of the other questions she asked. I was banished to my bedroom to ask God why this had happened to me. Eventually I figured out what had occurred. This was our first house and it had come with a modern washer and dryer. Previously, my mother had to do washing in an old-fashioned tub style washer with a wringer. Clothes were then hung on the line to dry. As we came to learn, however, the modern washer could get clothes lumped on one side during spin cycle and the washer would vibrate the hell out of the wall. Enough to knock a bleach bottle off of a shelf.
I learned an important lesson that day. Everybody lies, as Dr. Gregory House was fond of saying. People talk about the importance of being truthful but that in itself is a lie. Exhibit A is how my mother always lied about how old I was at the movies or in a restaurant in order to get a discount since I never looked my age. Voters have created an endless governmental deception by punishing politicians who tell the truth and electing and then reelecting those who brazenly lie about everything. You want proof? 92% of Americans disapprove of the job performance of Congress. But 98% of legislators get reelected. Political leaders lie about their record, global warming, military spending, entitlement programs, guns, labor statistics, sex, sexual orientation, child welfare, taxes, and infrastructure just to name a few. I think that Republicans tell bigger lies than Democrats but I could be wrong. The failures of the Iraq policy and Trickle-Down economics support my belief however.
There’s an old joke that asks how you can tell when a politician is lying. Answer: when their lips are moving. Today’s voters don’t have a monopoly on believing that political rhetoric is nothing but bovine related material. Socrates was put to death in part because of his insistence on the truth and Frederick Douglass complained about lying politicians in his autobiography. Furthermore, lying is necessary in society. On a small scale, intimate relationships cannot exist without some lies. On a larger scale, lies convince people to put societal goals ahead of their self-interest.
And it’s not just humans who engage in deceit. Animal studies have shown that deception exists in many social species. Gorillas, chimps and baboons have all shown the use of lying both in the wild and in captivity. Closer to home, dogs have demonstrated the ability to deceive their owners in certain situations. All of this means that lying is widespread, timeless, and natural. Which begs the question of why telling the truth is considered such an important virtue? It’s even enshrined in religious texts like the Bible.
One view asks about what harm comes out of the lie compared to telling the truth? I think a better question is: “What good comes out of a lie versus telling the truth?” To me, it’s a question of practicality. Certain lies may seem harmless, Santa Claus comes to mind, but even these innocent lies can generate long term harm. But at least that’s a lie with good intentions. But good intentions are not enough. The consequence of our government and corporate America constantly lying is that people have become too cynical to recognize the truth, particularly unpleasant ones.
A significant number of people are more willing to believe that pharmaceutical companies and the medical community are lying about vaccine safety than face the fact that we don’t know what causes autism. Since everyone else lies why should we believe scientists? The answer is that although scientists have been caught lying, the field of science is self-correcting. Belief is not only not required but discouraged. Science asks us to look at all of the evidence and then decide how much we should trust the results. The fundamental difficulty with science information is there is so much and it is accumulating so fast that no one can keep up to date with all of the evidence. The public therefore relies on the media to serve up their science information.
This is a problem for three reasons: 1. Reporters are not scientists and can introduce errors while trying to simplify complex stories. 2. Most media are more concerned about generating income than accuracy of reporting. 3. The media is easily manipulated by those who benefit from lying. Examples of this are the fossil fuel industry lying about global warming or the tobacco industry lying about lung cancer. Their financial interests are threatened by the truth so they throw up smoke screens of “conflicting scientific data” when there isn’t really a conflict.
But perhaps the most damaging lies of all are the ones we tell ourselves. For those are the ones that allow us to excuse our bad behavior instead of confronting and changing it. The lies that let us look in the mirror and blame others or make justifications for our poor decisions and hurtful actions. It’s easier to say “Everybody does it, or it’s not a big deal, or they deserved it.” Self deception is the balm that allows to us sleep. Truth is the core problem for my clients who are all felons. Learning to tell the truth to themselves is fundamental to their recovery and successful reentry into society. It is also one of the hardest things for them or anyone else to do.
I am currently watching the marriage of a young couple I know blow up. While such a situation is sad and full of pain for all involved, it is edifying to see how each party is handling it. One is angry but fighting to understand what went wrong and address their personal shortcomings. The other is also angry but has spent months constructing a false narrative to justify their poor behavior. And perhaps it is here that real understanding of truth versus lies can be found. If we are honest with ourselves, then perhaps it doesn’t matter what we tell the world. Because, after all, everybody lies.