We seem to have lost something. What it might be is hard to say. But it has something to do with our willingness to reckon with the truth.
The lead character on the popular TV drama House can be heard insisting in almost any episode that “everybody lies.” Because of this, he asserts that the most important task of a good medical diagnostician is to sift through a patient’s endless trail of outright falsehoods, distortions, purposeful omissions, and inadvertent misstatements in order to get firmly on the right track to understanding the true nature of their symptoms. Now, Gregory House is known to be the quintessential cynic. But does he have a point? Does everybody lie?
Pulitzer Prize winning author James B. Stewart has just released a book about some of the biggest lies told in the past several years and the high-profile figures who uttered them. In Tangled Web [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?), Stewart examines the lies that were ultimately behind the undoing of folks like Bernie Madoff, Martha Stewart, Scooter Libby, and Barry Bonds. He makes the point that at least in some cases, the problems these individuals faced as a result of their misdeeds either paled in comparison to the problems stemming from their untruthfulness or were compounded many times over by their refusal to simply come clean. He also suggests, although he offers no hard scientific data to support the notion, that lying has become much more commonplace, especially among folks in higher socioeconomic classes. In the past, when otherwise decent people got caught, he asserts, they were more likely to “fess-up” and face the music. But today even the role models among us try to evade responsibility and lie about their missteps. Naturally, one lie almost inevitably begets another, and another, etc., when one is feverishly attempting to cover one’s tracks.
In my most recent book, Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?), I make the point that lying is one of the key features of what I consider the defining phenomenon of our age: the fact that so many of a person’s individual problems as well as our collective social problems are the direct outgrowth of impaired character development. I also discuss how some of the most disturbed and manipulative characters among us have unfortunately elevated the craft of lying to a near art form. Some can lie by reciting a litany of true facts, thus winning another’s trust or confidence while simultaneously side-stepping the one crucial detail that would shed an entirely different light on the situation. Some trick: lying by saying only true things!
Whether lying is actually more commonplace or egregious these days is a matter of some debate. But what can’t be debated is Stewart’s careful review of how lying has historically been culturally regarded as well as how lying under oath (perjury) was legally sanctioned. While he does not advocate that we return to the days when perjurers had their tongues cut out or those whose false testimony resulted in an unjust conviction of others were put to death, he does lament that the public at large seems relatively apathetic and resigned to the problem and that modern day prosecutors have an almost impossible task not only proving the guilt of wrongdoers but also demonstrating, under the tough standards of the law, that their suspect’s deliberate lying made it impossible for them to expose the truth.
Our society has become much more fractured and adversarial. That might be one of the reasons why, as Stewart suspects, loyalty seems to have become more important to some than honesty. But we have definitely lost something when a person can raise their arm and swear on a revered text and before a magistrate and a company of peers to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth while harboring full intent to conceal it. Just what it is that we’ve lost is hard to say. Some might say it’s our innocence. Others might say it’s any sense of shame. Still others might say it’s a moral compass. It could even be any sense of decency, dignity, or integrity. But whatever it is, we seem to have lost it, and all because or our growing unwillingness to reckon with the truth.
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