Have you ever met a consummate liar?
Did you know it at the time?
Was it months — even years — before you realized you bought into a little fiction here and an outright fabrication there?
A few years ago, I was in love with an accomplished liar, a ladies' man, an exaggerator extraordinaire. He was the kind of guy who could look you in the eye and convince you of anything. No hint of hesitation. No glimmer of guilt. Not only was he persuasive to yours truly, but to a few other women, too — and all of us, at the same time.
Come on, admit it. You’re impressed — with him. Hats off to the heartbreaker, right?
But what do we think about lying, really? Is it something we still fret about, or do we turn our backs unless we’re personally affected?
I’d be lying if I said I’ve never skirted the truth. But the truth is, I’m a lousy liar. I don’t like deceit and do my best to be straight with others. I’ve taught my kids what my mother taught me: honesty is the best policy, and lies leave us on shaky ground — without trust.
Yet I know my lack of guile can sometimes be a disadvantage, and I’ve learned to play certain cards close to the vest. Lying has become more a practical issue than an ethical one. So I balance my 20th-century upbringing with 21st-century realities: scruples are hard to come by, competition is cutthroat, persistent promotion dulls our senses, and if we can’t spot a liar — then we need to vet everyone.
For better or worse, variations on veracity are flourishing and surely part of the human condition. But why do we admire those who twist the truth and don’t get caught? Why would we prefer to say they’re not prevaricating, they’re positioning; they’re not falsifying, they’re fudging?
If we make these distinctions, isn’t the challenge where to draw the line? Is it a matter of who gets hurt? Of legalities? Are we eroding our ability to see a lie for what it is because of our own moral relativism?
I turn to the dictionary for clarification: A lie is “a false statement with the deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; intent to convey a false impression.”
It’s an adequate definition. But don’t we require elaboration on types of lies and their outcomes — white lies to spare hurt, whoppers to perform as tall tales, devastating lies of omission and commission? Shouldn’t we examine personal lies forged for our own advantage, and institutional lies — government, business, even media — that we’ve come to expect?
And what about getting caught in a lie? We don’t like to talk about it, and we should. We have sufficient examples to serve as a deterrent: lies shatter friendships, marriages, political campaigns. Once may be enough to cure the amateur liar of temptation, but others may get away with their untruths, wriggling out of jams and no one’s the wiser.
A few are good enough pretenders to carry on a double life — at least for a while. Or in the case of my squirrelly suitor, make that a triple life.
When it comes to the more mundane falsehoods, I can be as understanding as anyone — or as critical. The mental health day? Spanx and a Wonder Bra? Lying about your age? What about manipulation masquerading as management, or mind games as marriage? Don’t these qualify as conveying “a false impression” or “deliberate intent to deceive”?
That’s a yes in my book, though reasons and context will determine where I might place these behaviors on the spectrum of benign to malignant. Naturally, your assessment won’t be mine any more than my aptitude for evasion will stand up next to your penchant for posturing. But when the necessity of lying becomes the art of lying, and when the art of lying becomes the habit we never shed, whatever we call it — the fib, the fiction, the falsification — we’re undermining trust and society is bearing the consequences.
Is that a moralistic conclusion on my part?
And it’s ethics over pragmatism.