Whenever I ask my wife this question, I already know what she will say. She’ll look at what I’m wearing and, unless I look like a major fashion tragic, and a potential public embarrassment to her, she’ll tell me that I look fine.
She might be telling the truth, or, in the interests of preserving my fragile ego, she might be telling a little fib.
That’s not such a bad thing, and most of us will do the same, once in a while.
However, strictly speaking, it’s probably not the truth. Does that make it a lie?
I looked up the definition of the word “lie”, in my very thick Macquarie Dictionary. That’s right, in a real book. Among other things, the dictionary says that a lie is:
“a false statement made with intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; a falsehood”
I suppose this means that, technically speaking, my wife’s answer to my question might be a lie. In the grand scheme of things, though, does it really matter if, in answering my question, she tells the absolute truth, or not?
Observers of the Christian religion may suggest that telling any “untruth” is contravening the Ninth Commandment “Thou shalt not bear false witness . . .” – this is my abbreviation from the full text.
Religious fundamentalists may tell us that the telling of any lie is bound to be a sin, and that sinners are condemned to purgatory. To me, as a practising atheist, that’s “black and white”, extremist bullshit, but it does serve to establish one perspective to the question, “When is a lie, actually a lie?”
As with most things, in my experience of life, there are few absolutes when it comes to interpreting Truth. Taking an absolutist approach to this discussion, fails to account for the motivation behind a lie.
I have a penchant for seeing the observance of many of life’s basic principles as taking place across a range, as part of a spectrum. With respect to lies, that range starts with the innocuous and harmless “untruths”, traditionally known as “white lies”, and ends with the vile and injurious “black lies”. We tend to lie by degrees.
However, there is a further dimension to be considered – the magnitude of the lie. Consider this simple equation:
Magnitude = motivation x impact.
The magnitude of a lie can actually determine its location upon the spectrum – where it sits between black and white.
Take my wife’s decision to tell me that I look OK, even though, strictly speaking, I could look better. This is a low magnitude lie, because her motivation is benign and its impact is negligible. It’s an innocuous, and very pale, white lie.
Then consider this. A dominant world power wishes to secure its access to oil reserves in the Middle East, so it fabricates a story about one particular nation creating a storehouse of weapons of mass destruction, as an excuse to invade that nation, and thereby control its oil distribution. This results in a lengthy and horribly destructive war, which claims the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. The magnitude of that particular lie is enormous. The motivation was evil and the impact horrendous. This places that particular lie in the blackest category.
When I consider the types of lies which we speak, I tend to create three principal groups – “protective” lies, “convenient” lies and “destructive” lies, and membership of each group is largely determine by the magnitude of the lie.
As its categorisation suggests, a protective lie is one of low magnitude, given its benign or even benevolent motivation and its low impact. These are the lies which we tell in order to protect someone’s feelings.
Convenient lies are of higher magnitude, sometimes having more sinister motivation and greater impact upon a person or group. If I’m likely to be in trouble because I have made an error in judgement, and done something which will potentially see me suffer negative consequences, I may compound my already poor behaviour, by lying to avoid its consequences.
For example, whilst parking my car, I accidentally run over a council-owned garbage bin, spreading its contents and destroying its structure. No-one is around, so I drive off. Somehow the council finds out and sends me a letter, advising that I will be required to pay restitution for the value of the bin. Motivated to avoid spending money, and considering my “crime” to be victimless, I want to argue that it wasn’t me. Being stupid, I send the council an angry letter, accusing them of making a mistake.
Within days, I receive another letter from council. This one contains a picture taken from a CCTV camera, clearly showing my car, and me looking at the damaged bin. It also contains an infringement notice, including a bill for the cost of the bin, and labour costs for its installation, and a notice of a fine having been imposed. My convenient lie is no longer quite so convenient.
Destructive lies are what most people might call “real lies”. They’re the ones with the highest magnitude because their motivation is negative and their impact extreme. The lie regarding weapons of mass destruction, is an example of a destructive lie.
So, who tells lies?
The short answer is – we all do. (Unless we are religious fanatics and fear the fires of hell for our sins.)
As children, we use lies as a means to avoid consequences for our actions, until we discover that older people can often tell when we are telling lies. In some cases, we lie in order to gain attention when we feel unrecognised or neglected. Those motivations may remain consistent into adulthood, when we become more sophisticated in our strategic use of the untruth.
In considering the value of lying as a strategy, we must again reflect upon the magnitude of the lies we choose. The efficacy of a lie is entirely dependent upon its capacity to achieve its goals, and the potential for the unintended, and unwanted, consequences of being found out.
I suggest that the nebulous group known as Most People will tend to use protective lies as a matter of course, with little thought, and on a regular basis. Protective lies might be seen as an essential component of compromise, and, in some cases, an integral part of a happy family life. Applications outside the “family and friends” situation must surely exist, but I can’t think of any offhand.
Convenient lies, due to their greater potential magnitude, are, in my assessment, less prevalent. They will tend to be used in response to more critical situations, in order to promote the more important positive, and avoid the more damaging negative, consequences. Being caught out in a convenient lie may result in embarrassment, but seldom in incarceration.
It’s with the destructive lies, the real lies, that the problem with lying really lies. (Crappy pun intended). It’s also here where we need to consider, not just the concept of the lie, but the concept of truth.
I believe that it’s best summed up in the legal oath taken in court, to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Thinking that truth and lies are simply diametrically opposed concepts, and subject to clinical, black and white interpretation, is demonstrably wrong. As is true with lies, there are degrees of truth.
There are absolute, scientifically proven and undeniable truths – the sun rises in the east, or thereabouts, rain is wet, human beings have affected the nature of the planet. Then there are partial truths, incomplete because inconvenient pieces of data have been excluded from the telling. Finally, there are false truths – lies which are given credibility because they are spoken as if they were truth.
What about the suggestion that, if an idea exists in the mind of the teller, as a truth, then for that person, it is true? Conversely, is a lie only a lie if the speaker believes it to be a lie?
In my work with children and young people, I was often required to interview individuals as part of a conflict resolution process, or as a means to apportion responsibility for an action. I encountered some of the most skilful liars imaginable.
I learned that the depth of conviction in the telling of a lie, its capacity to be convincing, was directly proportionate to the level of fear of consequences, held by the liar. Those who were most afraid of consequences, or who were afraid of very serious consequences, told the most convincing lies. The prevalence of “tells”, revealing aspects of body language or speech patterns, was significantly reduced in an expert liar, in proportion to the fear engendered by the thought of negative consequences for discovery.
It was possible for a particularly skilful liar, whose inappropriate behaviour I had witnessed at first hand, to almost convince me that I hadn’t seen what I had seen.
Former Queensland Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, one of the most successful politicians Australia has ever produced, (not a compliment) was a master of the political gerrymander, promoter of political corruption, and a consummate liar.
I believe that Bjelke-Petersen used a particular technique when deciding how much truth to employ, one perfected over many years. As a person devoid of appropriate principles or social conscience, he found it easy to divorce himself from reality, and to choose any path which would best serve his personal interests.
Bjelke-Petersen’s prime motivation was to stay elected, in order to keep his dominant position of power. It’s my opinion that to him, power was even more important than the wealth which he gained through his abuse of that power.
Having decided upon the path to power, or to its retention, Joh would then decide the truths which most suited his purpose. Having decided that something was “true”, even though it was demonstrably false, he could not be moved from that position. With scant regard for reality, Joh would promote those “facts” and “policies”, regardless of their veracity, which he felt would be most likely to get him elected. If caught in a lie, he would deny. There are politicians operating in today’s Federal Government who have clearly read Joh’s training manual. One in particular has reached lofty heights using his own version of the “lie and deny” strategy.
Although, in my opinion, Most People will use lies of a very small magnitude, Some People have elevated the skill of lying to an art form. With regard to these specialist liars, we need to consider the use of both lies and truth, as a means to an end.
Professional liars, or “truth twisters” can be found in many walks of life. I have seen charts which list the least trustworthy (read, “most likely to be liars”) as people who work in advertising, the law and politics.
I’ll ignore advertising execs, because anybody who expects truth in advertising is insane.
I’ll ignore lawyers, because I don’t want to risk a law suit.
However, I can’t ignore politicians, seemingly the most universally criticised group of liars, because there is an abundance of factual material which can be used to support my personal, and therefore biased view, that too many politicians will lie whenever there is something to be gained, in terms of power, prestige or personal benefit, from doing so.
We are blessed with some outstanding people operating in all three tiers of Australian government. These people possess integrity, and are motivated to achieve the best possible outcomes for their constituents. I prefer not to refer to them as politicians, simply because the title is so tainted. However, few of this group become respected and acknowledged outside their own electorates, because media spotlights tend to fall mainly upon the wrong-doers, the charlatans, the most corrupt.
I see political lies as falling into three major categories – opportunist lies, cynical lies and calculated lies, and see lying politicians choosing from any of these categories, as needs require. In some cases, a single lie can fall comfortably into multiple categories.
Here are three examples, one taken from each tier of government, which may support my view. In an attempt to avoid accusations of partisan comment, I will not use names, however, the situations will be familiar to many:
In a local government area, a plan is conceived to build a community cultural centre. The plan is quickly developed to include new council chambers, a step to which the community responds with many loud objections. The Mayor, however, has already conceived of this building as a resplendent monument to the Mayor’s time in office, and chooses to fabricate data (tell lies) which support the plan.
There are claims, allegedly supported by researched “facts”, that the town’s CBD will begin to thrive anew, with this building as its centre point. Visitation figures in excess of 400 000 people per year, are claimed – not bad for a regional town with a population of less than 80 000, and a new by-pass under construction.
Many of the political lies surrounding this issue are opportunist, suiting the needs of a moment, most are calculated, designed to achieve a predetermined outcome, whilst all are cynical – “We have the power to do and say whatever we like”.
The Premier of an Australian state, an important role in which the trust of the electorate is fundamental to success, has an on-going intimate relationship with a fellow politician, who is subsequently proven to be corrupt. The Premier, who is obliged to disclose this relationship to the State Parliament, chooses to keep it secret. This is a lie of omission, perhaps a calculated lie.
When criticised, the Premier falls back on the defence that, in the Premier’s mind, there was no conflict of interest. To educated political observers, the conflict of interest is apparent. This is an opportunist lie. It should be noted that the Premier believes the statement that no conflict of interest existed, is true, so has the Premier actually been lying, or simple deluded?
Finally, a senior member of the Australian Government, is attracting notoriety as a serial liar, whose lies are of immense proportions. He has been publicly accused of lying, by the elected leader of a major world power. To list examples of opportunist lies, cynical lies and calculated lies, spoken by this person, would expand the scale of this article beyond manageable proportions, but here are two examples:
Prior to the last federal election, this person stated that the Opposition’s policy on electric vehicles, would destroy Australians’ recreational opportunities. In the growing campaign for the next election, this person is lauding the virtues of electric vehicles. The answer to questions regarding the initial lies condemning electric vehicles, is that technology has advanced so far in the last few years, that these vehicles are now not only viable, but preferable. This is a lie. Experts testify that no such technological development has occurred. The initial lie is compounded by the latest lie, which comfortably fits all three categories, opportunist, cynical and calculated.
On the current campaign trail, this person has stated that the Opposition’s policies will see dramatic increases in interest rates and inflation, both of which he hopes will be perceived as negative events. Not only do acknowledged experts expect minimal increases in interest rates and inflation, but they actually state that such increases will be conducive to economic growth and the welfare of voters.
When asked if lies were told, in a public context, by this senior member of the Australian government, the response was in the negative, despite the fact that there are countless examples of these lies in the public record.
This Australian government member, seeking re-election, lies about telling lies.
So, how do these people escape immediate consequences for lying? It’s easier at the federal level in Australia, because of the absence of an effective anti-corruption watchdog, but perhaps the real answer lies in public apathy. However, that’s a subject for another time.