"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, May 14, 2015

If Everyone Lies, Is It A Level Playing Field?

Everyone in America lies – or so it seems.  After so much deceit, evasion, deliberate distortion of the facts, and bald-faced chutzpah, how can we take any politician seriously. Nixon stonewalled, destroyed evidence, and out-and-out lied to the American people.  Lyndon Johnson used the fictitious Gulf of Tonkin incident as a casus belli. Bill Clinton tried to hide his dalliances through careful parsing of language, denials, and fancy dancing.  North Carolinian Mark Sanford used a walk on the Appalachian Trail to cover is unexplained absences from the State House and his fugues to see his Argentine lover.  John Edwards lied about his affair to his dying wife and to the public; and when the media got scent of a lovechild, his evasive acrobatics were worthy of Gary Hart, another well-known politician who lied through his teeth about his affairs.

Bill Clinton II

Lance Armstrong not only lied about his doping, but intimidated his teammates, reporters, and sports officials with threats of lawsuits and character assassination.  In a chilling documentary on Lance Armstrong, Stop at Nothing (Showtime), Australian filmmaker Alex Holmes tells of the cyclist’s rise and fall:

Comprehensively reported, director Alex Holmes’ documentary makes devastating use of Armstrong’s depositions and press conferences to illustrate the vehemence with which he denied doping allegations before coming clean, though not enough to soothe the feelings of those he badgered and sought to intimidate. Perhaps foremost, as shrewdly depicted, the story captures the collective hunger for heroes — and the speed  at which media can turn away from them (Brian Lowry, Variety 11.14)

It was not just that Armstrong lied about his years of doping, but intimidated others to lie as well. According to the documentary Armstrong, leader of the US Postal Service team, convinced all his colleagues to take Performance Enhancing Drugs (PED), maintain a code of silence as absolute and punitive as any Mafia pledge of omertà. As he won more and more medals (seven Tours de France), as his star power increased, and as he became an American hero, his ability to threaten and menace others to guarantee their complicity and silence was complete.

Alex Rodriguez lied to the Yankees, to the public, and to his teammates about his doping, and only after years of federal investigation and the likelihood of jail time did he cut a deal and agree to a year off from baseball. He was not the only athlete who doped, lied, and finally admitted what he had done.

NBC News Anchor Brian Williams recently admitted to making up a story about taking enemy fire while in Iraq in 2003. When recently exposed, he said that he had ‘conflated’ his helicopter which did not take fire and the helicopter in front of him which did.  An unfortunate error in judgment for which he apologized.

Investigation into his reporting on Katrina from New Orleans has suggested that he made shit up there, too. His reports of suicides that didn’t happen, bodies falling from the top of buildings which never flew, and other distortions, misrepresentations, and flat-out inventions are being scrutinized for ‘veracity’.

The ‘conflation’ issue is inexcusable; for not only does it damage the cause of investigative reporting and honest journalism, it makes a joke of the men and women who do come under enemy fire.   It is scandalous.

Evangelists for two hundred years have shamelessly lied about their indiscretions, financial dealings, and secular ambition. We cannot possibly take Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker or Jimmy Swaggart seriously.  However, we discount their personal dishonesty.  It is the Word of God we want to hear, and they preach a very good sermon indeed.

Image result for images jimmy swaggart crying

Yale Medical School professor Dr. Diane Komp in her book Anatomy of a Lie raises an interesting explanation to the now common phenomenon of lying in America.  Perhaps it is not the lying star figures who influence us, but we who influence them:

"I began to wonder about the possibility that my own seemingly harmless white lies had an impact on the world, that maybe, instead of there being a trickle-down effect when people in exalted positions or in public life lie, there is a trickle-up effect," Komp explained in a recent interview. "In other words, maybe the cultural trend in lying begins with those of us who are not in positions of power, rather than the other way around. Maybe the 'trivial' lies that most of us tell without any real pricks on our conscience do matter." (Yale News, 1998)

This makes a lot of sense because all of us know liars.  Our parents have lied to us. We have lied to our children, and they to us.  We do our best to hide our errors and misdemeanors at work.  We lie to our wives and husbands about our indiscretions.  We cheat on our income tax, have no qualms about defending our rights dishonestly, bend or even invent the facts when it comes to resumes, job interviews, and performance reviews.

She goes on to suggest why people tell lies:

To protect themselves from punishment or embarrassment, to protect their own fantasies about themselves, and to protect the feelings -- or, in extreme cases, the lives -- of others, she says. Regardless of the purpose, "the desire to assume control over another human heart is the basis of most human lies”.

She is not the first to consider lying, to wonder whether ‘white lies’ and ‘compassionate lies’ regardless of their seemingly honest purpose to alleviate pain and suffering, contribute to an erosion of moral rectitude and honesty.

A few decades before Sisela Bok in her book Lying said:

A good man does not lie. It is this intuition which brings lying so naturally within the domain of things categorically wrong. Yet many lies do little if any harm, and some lies do real good. How are we to account for this stringent judgment on lying, particularly in face of the possible trivial, if not positively beneficial, consequences of lying?

Perhaps we lie because it is so easy to justify.  As Sisela Bok has suggested, who can deny the apparent good of sparing a dying patient the worst news; or keeping the truth from family members so that they can keep up their hopes and prayers? Once one admits that there is a spectrum of lies from the ‘good’ to the maliciously evil, finding an acceptable and comfortable space on it is easy.

On the other hand, philosophers such as Immanuel Kant said that lying was always morally wrong:

He argued that all persons are born with an "intrinsic worth" that he called human dignity. This dignity derives from the fact that humans are uniquely rational agents, capable of freely making their own decisions, setting their own goals, and guiding their conduct by reason. To be human, said Kant, is to have the rational power of free choice; to be ethical, he continued, is to respect that power in oneself and others.

Lies are morally wrong, then, for two reasons. First, lying corrupts the most important quality of my being human: my ability to make free, rational choices. Each lie I tell contradicts the part of me that gives me moral worth. Second, my lies rob others of their freedom to choose rationally. When my lie leads people to decide other than they would had they known the truth, I have harmed their human dignity and autonomy. Kant believed that to value ourselves and others as ends instead of means, we have perfect duties (i.e., no exceptions) to avoid damaging, interfering with, or misusing the ability to make free decisions; in other words - no lying. (Tim Mazur, Santa Clara University)

And well before that the Christian theologian and Catholic saint, Augustine, said:

Wherein if there is any error, yet as Truth is that which sets free from all error, and Falsehood that which entangles in all error, one never errs more safely, methinks, than when one errs by too much loving the truth, and too much rejecting of falsehood. For they who find great fault say it is too much, whereas perhaps Truth would say after all, it is not yet enough.

“The truth will make you free” did not refer to the absence of lying but to the absolute truth of the divinity, grace, and redemptive powers of Jesus Christ. There could be no sliding scale of truth within this fundamental context.

Few people give Augustine or Kant any consideration at all.  They are old-fashioned, doctrinaire, absolutist, and inflexible. In an era of fundamental Christianity, theological principles are far less important that one’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ who died for the sins of mankind and who will be most forgiving of individual sins once one is born again in Him.  Catholics, despite their sophisticated theology combining faith, reason, and tradition, still offer temporal relief from sin in the form of Confession. Lying is a sin, but one which is easily forgiven.

There have been compelling arguments in favor of dropping all penalties for illicit drug use in sports.  It is expensive and as Lance Armstrong showed, almost impossible to prevent. Why not simply let every athlete dope so that there at least will be a level playing field which costs nothing to the taxpayer in either financial costs or ethical grief.  As soon as the ban is lifted, there is no need for lying or deception.  Fans never need to question whether a favorite athlete does or doesn’t dope. Questions of truth, ethics, and morality are gone in one fell swoop.

Since politicians and public figures have always lied and will continue to do so, most of us by now have discounted their deception.  We know they all lie and have decided to judge the adequacy and appropriateness of their candidacy on other grounds. We have discounted Hillary Clinton’s accounts of unusual donations to her foundation.  We are sure that she is lying, covering up, or at the very least spinning the facts in her favor.

Image result for images hillary clinton

We know that every politician hides his or her true principles, personal convictions, and beliefs until the tide has turned towards them.  Otherwise they will hedge, evade, and dismiss questions about them.  Lies of omission are what these deliberate attempts to deceive without actively deceiving were once called.  Therefore few of us believe anything what politicians say, and we judge them on other more immediate and more unequivocal positions on the defense budget, Islamic terrorism, or states rights.  Let them lie through their teeth; and we will simply construct a new set of criteria for judgment.

Most of us have already built this new construct if only partially. We judge trends, not facts. Overall consensus, not individual statements of facts. Conservatives on the whole believe in the ineluctability of human nature and the impossibility of social progress. Individualism, will, enterprise, and personal authority are what count. Progressives believe in the perfectibility of man through collective intervention.  Conservatives are people of faith, patriotism, and Christian values.  Progressives are secular rationalists. What more do we need?  It is a waste of time listening to the lies, fabrications, and self-serving admissions of individual politicians.

Hollywood stars are supposed to lie, since they do that for a living. Why should anyone pay any attention whatsoever to a movie actor’s views on politics?  They are adopting babies, singing for peace, and consorting with politicians for publicity, box office receipts, and image.  We discount their veracity.  We judge them on looks and acting and that’s all.

Image result for images bono


So despite Kant, ethical philosophers, and the Holy Bible, lying and deception are integral parts of our lives.  The more we accept that fact, the better off we will be.

This is not a misanthropic conclusion, but a very sanguine and realistic one.  It is time to stop listening to what people say and pay more attention to who they are and what they do.  A re-ordering of criteria of assessment, that’s all.

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