The Habit of Lying

I am reposting here on a topic that seems even more relevant today than it was when it was originally posted more than a year ago. It does seem to me that lying has become the new TRUTH and we need to get a grasp on this problem lest we become lost in a world of make-believe — if we aren’t already lost in that world. There is such a thing as truth and there is such a think as a blatant lie. Just because there are those who manage to convince people otherwise does not mean that we should not hold fast to the distinction between truth and falsehood like a life-raft in the swirling chaos of confused thought that surrounds us. 

It started with advertising I think — though I can’t be sure. I refer, of course, to lying. I don’t mean the occasional lie. I mean the chronic lie, lying as a matter of course. Selling the car to the unsuspecting customer by telling him that it was owned by an old lady and never driven over forty; selling the house without mentioning the fact that the basement leaks whenever it rains; insisting in the face of overwhelming evidence that global warming is a fiction.  I realize, of course, that people have always lied. But what I am talking about is the blind acceptance of lying as a way of life. It seems to have become the norm. Everybody does it, so it must be OK.

As one who taught ethics for forty-one  years I have a bone to pick with this sort of logic. Just because everyone does it (which is a bit of an exaggeration) does not make it right. In fact, the cynic in me is tempted to say that if everyone does it it is almost certainly not right! From an ethical perspective it is never right to lie, not even in an extreme case, although one might plead expediency in such a case. But it is never right, not even the “little white lie” that we might tell about our neighbor’s hat in order not to hurt her feelings. I might tell the little white lie, but I must realize that it is not the right thing to do, strictly speaking. In this case it’s just the expedient thing to do, since hurting her feelings would be much more upsetting than simply telling her that her hat is lovely when in fact it’s perfectly awful. It’s the lesser of two evils, if you will. In any event, the little white lie is not the problem. The big black lie is the problem: it has become commonplace. And it is the fact that lying has become accepted behavior that is of greatest concern.

When my wife and I were babysitting with our Granddaughters some time back I sat and watched several Walt Disney shows the girls seemed to like. The plots involving teenagers and their bumbling parents were absurdly simple, but they tended to focus on a lie told by one of the characters that generated a situation that required several other lies to be resolved. It was supposed to be funny.  I was reminded of the “I Love Lucy” shows (which I did love) that were also frequently based on a lie that Lucy told Ricky and which generated a situation from which all of Lucy’s cleverness was required to extricate herself. I then began to reflect on how many TV shows generate humor in this way. These situations are funny, of course, as were the Disney shows, I suppose. But the point is that the lie was simply an accepted way of doing things. If you are in a tight situation, lie your way out of it.

On our popular TV shows, it’s not that big a deal. But when our kids see this day after day it must send them a message that lying is simply the normal way of dealing with certain sorts of situations that might be embarrassing or uncomfortable. In any event, when it becomes widespread and commonplace, as it has clearly done in today’s world, it does become a larger problem. When Walmart claims it always has the lowest prices and has to be taken to court to reduce the claim to always having low prices we become aware that the rule of thumb seems to be: say it until someone objects and after the courts have ruled we will make the change. In the meantime we will tell the lie and expect greater profits. And we all know politicians lie without giving it a second thought: whatever it takes to remain in a well-paid position requiring little or no work whatever.

As we listen to the political rhetoric that fills the airwaves and makes us want to run somewhere to hide, we realize that bald-faced lying has become a commonplace in politics. Tell the people what they want to hear, regardless of the consequences. It’s all about getting the nomination and then winning enough votes to be elected. If those lies result in harm to other people, say people of another religion or skin color, so be it. Consequences be damned! It is possible to check the facts, of course, but very few bother to take the time since if the lie supports the listener’s deep-seated convictions and prejudices it will readily be believed, true or false. And if it doesn’t, we simply stop listening. For example, one could simply search “FactCheck” and discover that the majority of Donald Trump’s claims are a fabrication or are blatantly false. But, then, truth does not enter in. We don’t seem to care much about that any more. Sell the house. Sell the car, Sell the political candidate. Whatever it takes. The end justifies the means.

This, of course, is utter nonsense.

 

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Lying, Of Course

It started with advertising, I think — though I can’t be sure. I refer, of course, to lying. I don’t mean the occasional lie. I mean the chronic lie, lying as a matter of course. Selling the car to the unsuspecting customer by telling him that it was owned by an old lady and never driven over forty; selling the house without mentioning the fact that the basement leaks whenever it rains; insisting in the face of overwhelming evidence that global warming is a fiction.  I realize, of course, that people have always lied. But what I am talking about is the blind acceptance of lying as a way of life. It seems to have become the norm. Everybody does it, so it must be OK.

As one who taught ethics for forty-one  years I have a bone to pick with this sort of logic. Just because everyone does it (which is a bit of an exaggeration) does not make it right. In fact, the cynic in me is tempted to say that if everyone does it it is almost certainly not right! From an ethical perspective it is never right to lie, not even in an extreme case, although one might plead expediency in such a case. But it is never right, not even the “little white lie” that we might tell about our neighbor’s hat in order not to hurt her feelings. I might tell the little white lie, but I must realize that it is not the right thing to do, strictly speaking. In this case it’s just the expedient thing to do, since hurting her feelings would be much more upsetting than simply telling her that her hat is lovely when in fact it’s perfectly awful. It’s the lesser of two evils, if you will. In any event, the little white lie is not the problem. The big black lie is the problem: it has become commonplace. And it is the fact that lying has become accepted behavior that is of greatest concern.

When my wife and I were babysitting with our Granddaughters some time back I sat and watched several Walt Disney shows the girls seemed to like. The plots involving teenagers and their bumbling parents were absurdly simple, but they tended to focus on a lie told by one of the characters that generated a situation that required several other lies to be resolved. It was supposed to be funny.  I was reminded of the “I Love Lucy” shows (which I did love) that were also frequently based on a lie that Lucy told Ricky and which generated a situation from which all of Lucy’s cleverness was required to extricate herself. I then began to reflect on how many TV shows generate humor in this way. These situations are funny, of course, as were the Disney shows, I suppose. But the point is that the lie was simply an accepted way of doing things. If you are in a tight situation, lie your way out of it.

On our popular TV shows, it’s not that big a deal. But when our kids see this day after day it must send them a message that lying is simply the normal way of dealing with certain sorts of situations that might be embarrassing or uncomfortable. In any event, when it becomes widespread and commonplace, as it has clearly done in today’s world, it does become a larger problem. When Walmart claims it always has the lowest prices and has to be taken to court to reduce the claim to always having low prices we become aware that the rule of thumb seems to be: say it until someone objects and after the courts have ruled we will make the change. In the meantime we will tell the lie and expect greater profits. And we all know politicians lie without giving it a second thought: whatever it takes to remain in a well-paid position requiring little or no work whatever.

As we listen to the political rhetoric that fills the airwaves and makes us want to run somewhere to hide, we realize that bald-faced lying has become a commonplace in politics. Tell the people what they want to hear, regardless of the consequences. It’s all about getting the nomination and then winning enough votes to be elected. If those lies result in harm to other people, say people of another religion or skin color, so be it. Consequences be damned! It is possible to check the facts, of course, but very few bother to take the time since if the lie supports the listener’s deep-seated convictions and prejudices it will readily be believed, true or false. And if it doesn’t, we simply stop listening. For example, one could simply search “FactCheck” and discover that the majority of Donald Trump’s claims are a fabrication or are blatantly false. But, then, truth does not enter in. We don’t seem to care much about that any more. Sell the house. Sell the car, Sell the political candidate. Whatever it takes. The end justifies the means.

This, of course, is utter nonsense.

 

Commercial Messages

I must confess I don’t watch much commercial television — except for a couple of sit-coms and sports (all manner of sports). And when the commercials come on I usually mute the television so I don’t have to listen to them. But the message still comes through loud and clear: they are designed to sell the product by appeal to such cravings as sex and power, though some use the avenue of humor which I applaud. (I do listen to the E-Trade babies which are terribly clever.) And I note that a great many commercials are peopled by young, beautiful, thin folks laughing and having fun at what appears to be a non-stop party. But most commercials resort to “in your face” tactics that are designed to get the message through in spite of whatever defenses you might throw up. Even the mute won’t help.

Years ago commercial messages were designed to simply inform potential buyers of a product’s desirable qualities so the buyer could make an informed choice. At some point, early in the last century it was discovered that the commercial message could also be used as a device to sell the product, thereby killing two birds with one stone as the salesman becomes redundant. And once that seed was planted it grew like a weed when television came on the scene; we now get 10 minutes of commercials in every 30 minutes of TV programming. And increasing numbers of those minutes are taken up by messages selling violence, such as those promoting Xbox games and shoot-em-up movies — ignoring for the moment the highlights on ESPN. One must consider the hidden message behind so much of what we watch on television — in a culture that wonders why we have such an affinity for violence. But there are other messages as well.

I will skip the Cialis and Viagra commercials that frequent the airways, especially on the Golf channel curiously enough, because they are simply in poor taste. But good taste is a concern that went out with hoop skirts. I will also resist the temptation to list the plethora of commercials that play into our cultural narcissism. Instead, let’s turn our attention to a commercial that has been on a good deal during this Christmas season when the car manufacturers want us to believe that a car would make a good Christmas present for our loved ones — “Just what I wanted,” as the Hyundai commercial would have it. (And, by the way, you can buy your loved one’s love by giving her jewelry if you can’t afford the car. It must be true, I saw it on television.)

In a Buick commercial that I find particularly offensive, a young man has just given his girlfriend/wife a brand new small car with a giant red ribbon on it. She is ecstatic and is giving him a huge thank-you hug when a new Buick drives by and catches her eye — and her affection. She looks longingly at the car, drawing his attention in that direction as well. Once the car has passed, he looks back at his partner, shows her the keys to her new car and tries to hug her again to recapture the moment. It is futile as she looks off into the distance and clearly wishes the car he gave her was the Buick instead of that thing.

There are at least three subtle messages coming through in this commercial: (1) buy a Buick if you want to win over your partner, (2) any gift recipient is sure to be disappointed and even to withdraw his/her love if you don’t spend lots of money buying them an expensive present, and (3) it’s perfectly OK to hurt someone’s feelings. Feelings don’t matter, things matter. It’s the latter message that really burns in my belly. Whatever happened to the notion that “it’s the thought that counts”?

It’s bad enough that we have turned Christmas into a commercial enterprise, but it’s deeply disturbing to send messages that other people’s feelings don’t matter, bigger is better, and it’s all about how much you spend that makes the present worth having. To see what Christmas is all about, check this out. Christmas isn’t about presents at all, and it is certainly not about expensive presents. And feelings do matter; they matter a great deal.

But the advertising agencies have learned that if you show people what the “good life” is all about they will want it and even go deep into debt to buy it — and it is for sale. They have also discovered that if you tell people something often enough they will believe it no matter how absurd it is — just ask the politicians.

The Illusion of Freedom

One of my favorite characters in literature is Edith Wharton’s Pauline Manford, the empty-headed heroine of Twilight Sleep. Readers of these blogs will recognize her name. She has the amazing ability to gather together in her mind seven or eight impossible ideas at the same time, convinced that each is absolutely true. Consistency be damned: if it feels right, that’s good enough for Pauline. Sounds like some people I know.

Late in this novel, Pauline drops an aside that is stunning. She tells her daughter how proud she is to be an American, then adds “Don’t you think it’s glorious to belong to the only country where everybody is absolutely free, and yet we’re all made to do exactly what is best for us?” Now, even in the context, it is not clear exactly what Pauline means. It seldom is, though she drops all sorts of gems in passing, almost without effort, certainly without thought. In this case, I will try my hand at interpretation. I will add a couple of words to make the comment look like this: “Don’t you think it’s glorious to belong to the only country in the world where everybody is absolutely free, and yet we are made to do exactly what [business thinks] is best for us? This seems about right.

We equate freedom with the ability to take whatever product off the shelf we want to, yet we are blind to the fact that persuasive advertising has led us directly to the shelf and virtually made the choice for us. Persuasive advertising manufactures “wants.” Even a quick look at the typical commercial on TV bears witness to the fact that we are being sold products we have no need for whatever.  But we buy them anyway. One obvious example is the new five-hour energy drink that promises to give us an instant lift so we can do our best work. No one needs such a thing. One could simply have a cup of coffee. Moreover,  it may even be bad for our health. But I am told that the company that sells this product is selling them by the thousands. The drink is a hit. And it is typical of the kind of thing we buy every day.

The method works so well the politicians have adopted the business model. They all now routinely hire advertising agencies to sell themselves to us. They hit us with endless deadly repetitions of the same stupefying 30 second message  in the hope that we will buy the “product” —  whether it is good for us or not. We buy politicians the way we buy soap and detergent, based on short, uninformative commercials because we are too lazy to take the time to do the research on the product to make an informed choice: we prefer to go with our “gut” feeling.

We are clearly deluded about just what freedom is — just like Pauline, though perhaps not to such a degree. We are “absolutely free” but we do what we are told is best for us. The most blatant example of this is the advertisement directed at kids on Saturday mornings, since the kids are clearly not able to tell what is and what is not worthy of their attention. But adults are supposed to know better, yet we don’t. The fact that this statement rings true is an indictment of our educational system, of course, since we are supposed to be smart enough to avoid the traps and pitfalls that are set for us every day by advertisers. Once again, we have found grounds for requiring a course or two in logic and critical thinking in the schools, But we hear no talk about this sort of curricular change. Instead we hear about practical courses that will lead directly to jobs — jobs that almost certainly will not be there when the time comes to apply for them.

The most practical education possible is one that prepares us for change, since that is the only thing we can be certain of in this world. And that sort of preparation will also allow us to see the absurdity that lies behind the comments of people like Pauline and the advertisers who inundate us with drivel and seek only to sell us their products — whether they are “best for us” or not. And that sort of education is a liberal education and it just happens to also be the one that will set us free — absolutely.