Lying is as old as the “oldest profession” – and probably much older than that. But it’s not all bad. In the natural world, animals routinely try to deceive their enemies. Lying is a matter of life and death for them. One example is the tasty butterflies that changed their appearance to mimic other species that are known to be poisonous to predators. Winston Churchill once observed that, “in wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” Then there are the “white lies” -- lies that are inspired by our good intentions -- where telling the truth could be harmful, or simply cause hurt or embarrassment. In other words, the motives behind our lies matter a lot.
Lying is also a well-studied behavior pattern. The blog postings at Psychology Today are thick with items about deception and self-deception: Who lies (almost all of us sometimes), why we lie (there are many reasons, of course), adolescent lying (a special challenge), how to detect lies and liars (criminal investigators have well-honed techniques), how to protect yourself from liars (enlightened skepticism, learn who to trust, watch out for those who might want to cause you harm), and more.
A special concern is what could be called the hard-core lies -- the lies that do real harm to other people, sometimes even lethal harm. Perhaps the most notorious case in recent history was the way the cigarette companies, for at least a generation, denied the evidence that smoking causes cancer. The current version of this is the climate change deniers, in defiance of the overwhelming scientific evidence and the extreme weather all around us. Hard core lies are often discouraged with legal protections, and our courts are choked with cases where the claimants are seeking restitution for some alleged deception. Indeed, lying is a cardinal sin in a court of law. A lawyer can be disbarred for committing deliberate perjury.
Lying in politics is especially pernicious. A democracy cannot work without an informed electorate whose actions and votes are based on “transparency” -- knowing the truth. The model for lying in politics was Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Adolph Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, an evil genius if ever there was one, was responsible for what came to be known as the “Big Lie.” If you repeat a lie often enough and with great sincerity and conviction, people can be seduced into believing just about anything. Proof of this was the relentless Nazi propaganda campaign against the Jews (blaming them for Germany’s defeat in World War One and the Great Depression), which culminated in the gas chambers of the Holocaust.
The modern masters of this dark art also have highly partisan ends in mind. Remember the “death panels” in the original health reform legislation? In reality it would have involved “interviews” that were intended to give the extreme elderly information about their options for end-of-life care. They were certainly not going to “condemn” people to death, as some opponents claimed. Likewise, the mandate that requires everyone to purchase some form of private health care insurance starting in 2014 is no more “socialist” than requiring everyone to carry automobile insurance. The latest examples of political canards are the various campaign proposals for drastically restructuring the tax code. These are portrayed (with a straight face) as fair and balanced but, in every case, they would sharply cut taxes for the wealthy and tilt the tax burden heavily toward the middle class.
So why don’t we get angry about the lies that are corrupting our politics, misleading the voters, and in some cases doing serious harm to our country? We are all too ready to accept uncritically the Big Lies, and stereotypes, that reinforce our biases and beliefs. Lies that serve our purposes are tolerated, it seems, because the end justifies the means. Too often we are too busy, or too ill-informed, or too prejudiced to care much about the truth. Or we shrug and assume that all politicians lie. But if they do lie, it’s because we let them get away with it and even to profit from it. There are all too many examples of lies (or “attack ads” that are borderline lies) that have decided elections. For instance, the so-called “swift boat” attacks on Senator John Kerry’s war record contributed to his defeat in the 2004 Presidential election.
Maybe it’s time to start fighting back against this destructive pattern. Some people, like Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show”, have been doing it. Here’s another idea. Somebody should set up an on-line “Liars Hall of Shame,” and every time a politician or some other public figure is caught in a lie, his/her image should be photo-shopped with a Pinocchio nose and then posted in this rogues gallery. Repeat offenders could then be flagged with sad smiley-face icons for each additional offense (they’re available at Google images). Public shame is still a powerful deterrent even in our cynical age, and repeat offenders would soon begin to stand out from the crowd. Lairs could even be assigned a mendacity ranking. Who would want to be known as the nation’s top ranked liar?
It won’t end lying in politics, of course. But it might give the truth a fighting chance.