Friday, December 09, 2011

To fear a lie, to speak the truth (Friday's Sunday's Poem/Hot Act

Against Lying
Isaac Watts

O 'tis a lovely thing for youth
To early walk in wisdom's way;
To fear a lie, to speak the truth,
That we may trust to all they say!

But liars we can never trust,
Even when they say what is true.
And he who does one fault at first
And lies to hide it, makes it two.

Have we not known, nor heard, nor read
How God does hate deceit and wrong?
How Ananias was struck dead,
Caught with a lie upon his tongue?

So did his wife Sapphira die,
When she came in, and grew so bold
As to confirm that wicked lie,
Which just before her husband told.

The Lord delights in them that speak
The words of truth; but every liar
Must have his portion in the lake
That burns with brimstone and with fire.


About the poem:

Ahem. *throat clearing*

"A Philippic In Favor Of Lying

On his blog the other day, author/epic critic/guy Michael Offutt wrote "Truth Has No Agenda," a plea, more or less, for people to stop lying and start telling each other the truth.

I would like to speak in favor of just not doing that.

Truth-telling is overrated, lying is underrated, and people don't know what the truth is, anyway.

I have had this debate on prior occasions with the guy I call Some Guy At Work: we were discussing whether anything is nonfiction; I had just learned that David Sedaris has been accused of embellishing his stories, and that prompted us to talk about whether something could ever be entirely nonfiction ... that is, entirely true.

My stance is: no.

When I come home from work and Sweetie says "So, what'd you do today?" if I say "nothing much," is that the truth? Not at all -- not really because in reality I did a great many things, from getting out of my car and walking to the office to writing a brief to talking with my partners to joking with the receptionist to watching a bootleg video of a Guns & Roses concert at the behest of an associate... and if Sweetie asks what I did, and I don't tell her everything I have distorted the truth.

There are those who would say "Well, you could tell her "I did a lot" or say some of the major things you did" but neither of those is the truth the way people think of the truth. As to the latter, if I omit anything I am creating the impression that I did not do that thing: If I tell Sweetie about the joking with the receptionist and the brief but leave out the conference with my partners, I have misled her into thinking I didn't meet with the partners.

An omission is as much of a lie as a commission, and if you don't think so, consider this: suppose I go into my office and send some emails, write a brief, embezzle $150,000 and then go home. And Sweetie says "So, what'd you do today?" And I say "wrote a brief, sent some emails."

So to tell the truth means, as witnesses swear to do, the whole truth because when you leave something out you shape the remainder of the story. Shading the truth is a lie.

But the truth is -- to use that word ironically-- that lies are good.

Provided they're not meant to hurt.

Lies are the WD40 of society. Lies that aren't intended to hurt are what help society function and what avoids unnecessarily hurting feelings and keep people getting along.

When someone says "How's your day" and you say "Fine" even though it's not really fine at all, you say fine not because you want to hurt that person, but because that person is not the person to lay all your troubles on. When I first found out that my mom had cancer and was going to die, I ran into a great many people that very day, including the guy who sold me the cup of coffee I bought at a gas station on the way home from the hospital.

"Hey, how's it going," this stranger said.

What would the truth-tellers have me do? Say to this person "Lousy. I just found out my mom will probably live about six months" ?

Say to him "Lousy," without elaborating?

Say to him "I'd rather not answer that question"? (That being, also, the truth.)

None of those are socially acceptable -- not in a society where people are expected to be socially nice to each other but are not all intimate friends.

So I said "Fine" because his problems are not my problems and my problems are not his; we were two strangers interacting for a brief moment and the lie: My life is fine was the same as, maybe, his: For all I know, his mom was dying, too.

Telling the truth all the time not only exposes strangers to our personal lives, but our personal lives to strangers, and I don't want that. I didn't want to tell the gas station attendant that my mom was dying. That was my life and if I don't want to share it with some stranger who happens to ask how I'm doing, then I have to lie.

Again: I could say "I'd rather not answer that question," but parse that out. What is the social benefit of that? This guy had no idea what was going on in my life; he was working and trying to be friendly, if only because friendly people tend to help make business better, and it maybe made his shift go by faster. So if I say I don't want to tell you that, I'm at best shutting down his mild overtures of civilization, and at worst am interpreted as rude.

You can say It's his fault if he thought you were being rude or took offense, but it's my fault, too, and your fault if you insist I tell the truth, because if I have to tell the truth then you put on me the burden of telling the truth but doing so in a manner that does not give offense at a time when I'm already dealing with lots of other matters, too, and it's easier to say "Fine" noncommittally than it is to say "I'd rather not tell you how things are going" in a chipper-but-noncommittal fashion.

And if I say that and then have to explain that I'm not trying to be rude, it's just that this... and we're back to having to explain my private life to a stranger who has his own private life.

Lies also help ease tensions and make interactions go smoothly among people you know well. My dad tends to take things personally, no matter how much I try to reassure him that it's nothing personal if I don't want to come visit or would rather that he not come visit. No matter how many times I say something like "We have really busy lives and would prefer to just have a quiet weekend with no visitors," my dad hears "We don't want you around."

So if my dad calls up and wants to come visit tomorrow, what would the truthtellers have me do? Mr Offutt would say "Tell him the truth and if his feelings are hurt, that's tough," I suppose, but is that the best way to go? My dad is 66 years old; he's not likely to change his attitude soon and even if he is, the adjustment may be rough and he may go through some period of time in which he actually believes that his son doesn't want to visit him before he realizes that, no, it really is nothing personal. Why should I make him believe that, even for a little while? I have the option of saying "No, this weekend isn't good, I've got some stuff to get caught up on at work." That's a lie: I don't have anything to get caught up on. But it reassures him: I like my dad, he hears, but I have to work, and he understands that work is important and doesn't worry that I don't like him.

I could, I suppose, just not take his call, but isn't that a lie? If I'm holding my phone and it rings and it's my dad and I don't answer the phone, that's a lie, as the message I'm sending is "I wasn't able to take your call," but that's not true.

And so permanent truthtelling becomes an impossible burden: I must take every call even if I'd rather not, and then I must say to the person on the phone "No, I have time to talk but I was reading some comics online and I'd rather do that than talk to you right now," and when they say "why is that?" I have to say "Well, because this week we got some bad news about one of my cases, this woman's going to lose her house, and I'm feeling a little down and just wanted to be by myself with my thoughts" and now this person ... who might be a telemarketer... is really, really involved in my life and I'm really involved in theirs.

That is a tough world to live in, isn't it?

Telling the truth is a noble ideal, until one considers what it really means. It's all well and good, as Mr Offutt points out in some examples, to say one should be upfront about one's racism -- but what about the honesty of the reaction? When confronted with open racism, Mr Offutt's friend responded:

"Thank you. Thank you for admitting that you're a racist bigot. I will find another daycare for my child. I honestly am thanking you because had you not said something, you could have harmed my child. I'm glad it never came to that."

That seems to me to be not completely honest. Did the woman really want to thank the racist for admitting to racism, and did the woman not want to tell the racist how wrong that person was for being racist?

That would be my reaction: If someone came up to me and said "I hate you because of your lazy eye"

...yes, I have a lazy eye...

... I would not say "Thanks, I'm glad to know about that."

I would want to say "What's your problem, you shallow goon? You judge people by their surface defects? You don't even know me. This is the 21st century and you are judging books by their covers in the worst possible way. Our society should not suffer you to remain in it."

And if I don't say that, then I'm not being honest and if I say anything but that, then I'm not telling the truth.

So in a world where we do not lie, no reaction may ever be held back, considered, or leavened. When my partner says something at a meeting that I find ridiculous, I must say "That is ridiculous" if he asks my opinion. I can't say "Well, maybe there's a better way to do this" because he asked my opinion and I must give it -- to do otherwise is to suggest that I shade the truth and not really tell how I am feeling. When confronted with racism at the doorstep of a daycare, the victim must confront the racist, even if her daughter is there, even if she is at a disadvantage, because doing otherwise is to lie and not own up to one's honest feelings that a racist is despicable.

There are, too, the social utilities of the little white lie: When asked how I feel about a book someone wrote or a video someone made or a cookie someone baked, I could, I suppose, say "That book was awful!" or "That cookie made me retch." Remember: If the cookie did make you retch, and you are being honest, you must say so. You cannot say "It wasn't really my thing" because that is not honest: there is no such thing as a half-truth. There is the truth and there are lies.

But I am not a professional food critic and the lady who brought cookies to the office luncheon doesn't expect a professional food critiquing. If you are my friend and I show you a story I wrote and say "I thought you might like to read it, as I wrote it," and you read it and I say "what'd you think?" you can say "it was okay" even if it wasn't, because we're friends.

I'm not including, in that, people who are expected to give an honest opinion. When I send a book to a reviewer, they have an obligation to be honest and if they are not honest, they're not much of a reviewer. But that's the difference between a professional relationship and a personal relationship: when I go to my doctor and say "how do I look?" he says "You need to lose 40 pounds." When I say that to Sweetie, she says "You look better than George Clooney."

I don't want her to say anything but that. I don't believe her for a second but I'd rather she didn't adopt the cold clinical approach of my doctor.

The little white lie; the larger social lie; the omission of a crucial aspect of the truth; the selective detailing of one's day, or not: These are the not just things that are helpful to society. They are things that are critical to society, to a world where people are not afraid to give each other a friendly greeting out of concern that it will result in a torrent of emotions, to a world where people can share a bite of pie or a bit of poetry and not be savagely critiqued out of ever trying again.

What most people who object to lying are really objecting to is what I, too, object to: A lie that hurts.

Any action that is intended to hurt is a wrongful action. Lies that are not intended to hurt are not bad at all; We do not live in a world of strict liability and thus there is no sin without wrongful intent (using sin in its biblical and societal sense: one can sin against society as easily as against God.)

When my partner says something ridiculous in front of the 9 lawyers that make up our firm and asks my opinion and I say "Well, that's one way to go, I suppose," I am lying.

But I'm not intending to hurt him and in fact I'm intending to help him, by having him save face, and help me and my family by not breaking up the firm or injecting a dissonance into the partnership. When Sweetie says I am handsomer than George Clooney, she's not trying to hurt me. She's providing me a boost that I simply wouldn't get from her saying "Well, you're an ugly mug but I love you anyway, fatso." When a friend reads my poem and says "It was pretty good," I don't necessarily run out and mortgage the house to make my living as a poet -- and they're not trying to make me do that. They're just being encouraging.

Lies that hurt, like any action that hurts, though, are wrong. The racist daycare provider lying about her motivations is lying out of hurtful intent: She hates other races and her omission of that information leaves children of other races vulnerable. Jerry Sandusky's lies prevented him from getting help and helped harm children. People who falsely proclaim a faith they do not have dilute others' genuine faith and deter from the mission of the church they do not really believe in. The man who fattened his wife with doughnuts was wrecking her health and beauty to protect from his own insecurities.

Those lies are wrong because they hurt. A lie in and of itself is devoid of meaning; it is no better, and no worse, than the truth, because the truth can be used as a sword and can hurt -- the truth hurts is a common saying and we have no counterpart to that saying for lies -- and focusing on the act, rather than the intent, is the superficial and easy way out.

We should not seek to build a society where nobody lies. We should seek to build a society where nobody tries to hurt others. Tell the truth when you can, lie if you must, but above all, do no harm.

About The Hot Actor: It's Alex Pettyfer, nominated by none other than Mr Offutt.


Grumpy Bulldog, Secret Agent said...

A lawyer advocating lying? I'm shocked, shocked!

I think I said in my old blog about how all nonfiction is a bit tainted because you have to filter out the boring crap. It's like how in "24" they never showed Jack Bauer use the bathroom because let's face it, that wouldn't be very interesting and distract from the focus of the show. So whatever point the author is making in his/her "true" story can't be cluttered up with a lot of unnecessary details.

I mean even stream of consciousness writing wouldn't be purely the truth; your unconscious mind still filters things out.

Anyway, my response to his post was similar to yours. We all tell little fibs because it's the only way to stay sane and not end up killing each other.

Michael Offutt, Expert Critic said...

Aristotle declares that reality imprints itself on the human mind, revealing intelligible truths. Because the mind of man corresponds directly to reality, man is capable of knowing its essence. "Truth means knowing existent objects and falsity does not exist, nor error, but only ignorance." Man can know things as they truly are; ignorance of their existence does not mean things do not exist, but that man has yet to know them.

A thing has its own integrity. Therefore, it cannot be true for one man and false for another. There is one truth, and individual men are more or less ignorant of that truth.

When I read what you write here, all I see is that you advocate blissful ignorance. The statement about your lazy eye illustrates that perfectly. You would rather be ignorant of the truth than acknowledge that someone reviles you for possessing what some may call a physical deformity. However, ignorance does not change the fact that the person thinks that of you. It just allows you to continue in a reality where you are not forced to confront and assimilate damaging statements that might reevaluate your self-worth.

I agree that we cannot possibly live in a society where everything is catalogued when someone asks, “What did you do today?” That would make us less human and more machine, right? It would be like running a computer command and accounting for every minute of every day. But I think that this example takes my commentary on my blog a little out of context. I wasn’t advocating that someone account for every second when asked a question. I don’t see that as being so much truth as it is data crunching. What I think the world needs is more honesty.

Obviously, you disagree.

I would like to know when someone only wants to be my friend so that they can try to get money from me. I would like to know when someone is going to choose a person for a job because they look better and they like their smile more or they are younger. This would allow me to know that the reason I fail at something is not because of me or something I did or some education that I lack. It’s due to things that are outside of my control. I can have peace with that. What I cannot get peace with is a sinking feeling that the reason that I fail is because of something I did.

I know you are married but I ask you to step outside the box. If you were super in love with a woman and you asked her out and she shot you down with a big “No,” wouldn’t you like her to be honest and know without a doubt that the reason is because you are fat, flabby, and old. “Sorry dude, but you are old, fat, flabby, and kinda ugly. I’d never date you in a million years.” Sure, it hurts. But you get peace from that honesty. You know that you’ll never have a chance. And this allows you to move on with your life. I think honesty like that is a gift.

Take for example your book. Let’s say you want a Big Six contract and you submit it to an agent. Wouldn’t you like to get a letter back that said, “Sorry, don’t have time to read it. If you were famous or rich, I might do something for you. But as it is, I had a nail appointment and just deleted all of them. Don’t query again with this same project and better luck next time.” This allows you to not blame yourself. You blame her…she’s a bitch and didn’t read it. Ah truth…how refreshing.

Grumpy Bulldog, Secret Agent said...

It is frustrating the way agents lie, but I think with agents it's like George Clooney in "Up in the Air." If you tell someone that they suck or just otherwise act like a huge bitch, then the author is going to get pissed off and start stalking you or maybe depressed and off his/herself. The agents don't want to deal with that crap, especially when they've got 100 other queries in the Inbox, so they just send the form letter or forget about you entirely.

Andrew Leon said...

I think I'm going to start at the same place here as I did on Michael's blog: people can't be honest with others because they can't be honest with themselves.

However, the other issue here is that we live in a subjective society not an objective one. In a society where "truth" is often dependent upon someone's point-of-view (sorry Aristotle), telling someone the "truth" can be damaging. More so, because it's not "the truth." It's just one person's opinion. However, if an opinion is presented as truth, it becomes a lie.

We'll take the statement, "old, fat, flabby, and kinda ugly." "Old" is a subjective statement. There have been historical periods where 40 would have been considered old, but, today, most people would not consider 40 to be old; although, people under 30 might. "Fat," also is subjective although more broadly so. It would be closer to objective to say "overweight" or "over the recommended weight for your height." Fat, though, is a derogatory comment in today's western society. "Flabby" is more objective, because, in some senses, you are flabby or you are not. However, someone who is in peak physical fitness might categorize normally fit people as being flabby when they wouldn't think of themselves that way. "Ugly" is the least objective of the terms you've used as beauty really can be entirely in the eye of the beholder. There have been stories dealing with that issue for centuries.

Going back to Aristotle, I do agree with him that we live in a world of shadows and imperfect truths. Somewhere, there is a perfect chair, and all the chairs we have here are just imperfect reflections of that one, true chair. The chair that everyone would be able to agree was -the- perfect chair. But, here and now, we can not agree on a perfect chair. Or on a perfect book. Or on a perfect person.

Because of this, people can use the truth in purposefully hurtful ways. Like Briane, I think this is wrong. Just like using a lie with the intent to hurt is wrong. And this is where it gets sticky, because you can tell a short term lie to avoid hurting someone that does long term damage to them, and people aren't always smart enough to see the difference. Okay, they're rarely smart enough to see the difference. And that's unfortunate.

I think, really, the best we can do is to treat others the way we would want to be treated. And that doesn't mean that you get to be brutally honest with someone because that's what you prefer. It means treating people with kindness and consideration, because, I think, all people really do want to be treated with kindness and consideration. Consideration of how they will feel if we take a certain action. Which is why being able to see things from the other person's POV is so important. Often, we don't know a person well enough, so that's when we have to use our best judgement.

In the end, I think both of you are right. To an extent. We shouldn't lie to people, but we also shouldn't wield the truth as a weapon.

[I pologize if this rambles somewhat. It took me nearly 3 hours to get this written due to numerous, numerous interruptions. I hope I hold a consistent thought throughout, but, honestly, I have to go out (again), and I don't have time to go back through it and make sure.]

Andrew Leon said...

ignore this one... forgot to click the email follow button