Our Tolerance for Lying


Pinocchio By Enrico Mazzanti (1852-1910) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Are you disturbed by the rampant culture of deceit around us? Does it bother you that truth takes a back seat to getting things done? Is it troubling when people around our president contend that “truth isn’t truth” and that there are “alternate facts?” Or that leaders will deny statements they are recorded as making and attribute it to “fake news?”

We are in the middle of another electoral season as I write, and I find myself deeply disturbed by the outright lies and misleading statements in much of our political language, often in scare language to arouse fears. Now I’ve been around long enough to know that this is not new. Lyndon Johnson characterized Barry Goldwater as a nuclear warrior and then led us into the quagmire of Vietnam. I remember the lies we were told about Watergate.

What concerns me is that I fear we are a nation increasingly inured to lies. We don’t expect politicians, advertisers, or even religious leaders to tell us the truth but to simply promise us an ever more prosperous life. As long as job and economic numbers are good, nothing else seems to matter. Tell me how to have my “best life now.” Don’t bring up the connection between zip codes and life expectancies of others. Don’t bring up the millions being displaced globally because of climate change. Don’t bring up ballooning national debts that our children and grandchildren will have to find some way to address. What happens when all our tax revenues go to repaying debt?

What disturbs me about an acceptance of what Marilyn McEntyre has called “a culture of lies” is how the erosion of integrity in our institutions leads either to corruption and graft, not unlike what we see in the failed states in many parts of the world–or totalitarian rule, where lies are told so long and so loud that they become accepted as the truth because the absolute power that can make a person disappear if they challenge the lies. Ask anyone in international business what it is like to try to do business where the rule of law and the observing of contracts has lapsed. Ask Jamal Kashoggi what happens when one tries to tell the truth about a totalitarian regime.

In other words, what disturbs me is less the lies of politicians than the fact that we let them get away with it and do not seem particularly bothered by being deceived. We don’t want our doctors to lie to us (at least most of the time) because the truth may be hard to swallow but it just might save our lives. Our politicians are among the stewards of our societal health and the life of our nation depends on them telling the truth and acting in accord with it.

It is a true statement that “reality bites” and the teeth of that bite is truth. We ultimately cannot make up the world the way we want it to be. If we don’t invest in our children, we will invest in prisons. If we don’t start paying for the government we receive, and do so equitably, we will pass along a Ponzi scheme that will collapse someday. We can deny the signs of a changing climate, but you can bet your insurance company will not.

That illustrious philosopher, Cecil B. DeMille observed:

“It is impossible for us to break the law. We can only break ourselves against the law.”

I would suggest that truth, from which law derives, is like that. We may try to deny it, or lie about it, but ultimately, we either allow it to define reality for us or break ourselves against it–whether as individuals or as nations. Is it time to stop tolerating lies and demand truth of those who lead us? Time and past time, I would suggest.

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