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The Truth about Lying

From wartime propaganda to strategic deceptions to the little white lies of everyday life, our lies are everywhere. Will we ever be able to tell the truth?

By Traci Vogel

What we have to do, what at any rate it is our duty to do, is to revive the old art of Lying.

--Oscar Wilde

What does the truth matter? Haven't we mothers all given our sons a taste for lies, lies which from the cradle upwards lull them, reassure them, send them to sleep: lies as soft and warm as a breast!

--Georges Bernanos

WRITING ABOUT LYING is like trying to remember your own forgetfulness. The attempt is a blurry rhetorical loop--one that resists conscious understanding with the wilful stupidity of a Gary Condit (Gary Condit as your unconscious--there's an image a Jungian could love). Even worse, the mind rushes to a lie the way a bloodhound rushes to death. The mind says: Here is something on the landscape that excites the senses, that bridges a mystery. The lie is a body of unknowledge. It stinks. Deliciously.

I've been thinking about lying a lot lately, in the context of the new national moral climate. Much has been written about how morality, before Sept. 11, was a topic defunct to that generation loosely dismissed as Gen Xers, but I don't think it's true.

In many ways, my ironic generation has been obsessed with defining morality. For an example, look to Dave Eggers' keening memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. You can't get much more moral than a book-length distracted deconstruction of your own reaction, and/or your nonreaction, to the death of your parents.

But, as Dave Eggers' distractions also show, morality is a touchy subject for a generation raised on skepticism, and the philosophical gradations of lying brush an especially sore spot. It is so accepted as to be cliché: No one really believes in an infallible Truth anymore.

It is even possible to say that lying has become a modern living necessity, not in the sense that etiquette dandy Quentin Crisp meant when he said, "The lie is the basic building block of good manners," but in the sense that Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen meant when she claimed, "Never to lie is to have no lock on your door; you are never wholly alone."

Bowen's view of aloneness was probably deeply affected by her own experience during wartime: She was an air-raid precautions warden in London during World War II, when the Nazis were bombing the city at unpredictable intervals.

Certainly, in the very crux of crisis, a lie makes sense in ways it wouldn't during peacetime. We might lie to preserve strategy, to allay panic, even to comfort someone who has been hurt as to the certainty of the future. The existence of an enemy may even catalyze a nation into being united in lying. Are we then moral liars? Is it possible for a lie to serve a moral purpose? Is there a difference when an institution lies and when a person lies? Should we feel patriotic about lying?

There are many stories--probably urban myths, although I hope not--going around about people who worked at the World Trade Center calling in sick Sept. 11. Some of them, reportedly, were lying: not sick but preferring to spend the sunny day with lovers, or with children, or getting errands done. These peoples' lies saved them. But does that take away the lies' blameworthiness?

In the reflection of Sept. 11, when even hard-core lefty journalists are prone to say, "I'm glad the government isn't telling us everything," how deep is the mark twain of the lie?

The Truth Would Not Do

Without lies humanity would perish of despair and boredom.

--Anatole France

IN MY SEARCH for answers, I find Evelin Sullivan. Sullivan, who teaches at Stanford, recently published an entire book on lying, The Concise Book of Lying (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). From her home in Redwood City, Sullivan addresses my questions about lying with the quick responses of someone who has thought about these issues for many years.

"I think in any kind of hostile condition," she says, her wryly inflected voice marked with an unplaceable accent, "[lying] becomes a reflexive mechanism for defense. During warfare, when we enter extreme circumstances, lying has always been accepted. ... If you have an enemy, you have to mislead the enemy about where you are and what you do."

But how can we feel good about lying, even in extreme circumstances? And if it's OK to lie in some circumstances, why not in all circumstances? Sullivan understands the danger of slippage.

"Lying is a moral question," she says. "And an interesting one, because we do have a sense that it is wrong, but we also know that it is necessary and useful.

"Politicians," she offers as an example, "tend to give themselves huge leeway." She cites the classic example of Joseph McCarthy, who lied unapologetically under oath to the State Department, when testifying about communist infiltrators. "McCarthy testified that [he knew of] as many as 205 communists, a number no one knows where it came from. Why 205, exactly? Who knows? But he would have said that he was doing the right thing under hostile circumstances, if confronted about this lie. Politicians give the excuse that it is for the greater good; the truth would not do the job."

I ask Sullivan if she has become more sensitive to her own and others' propensity to lie, in the wake of her really not-so-concise study (in fact, the book sprawls to 700 pages), and she says, "Yes, of course. I became acutely aware of when I was telling a lie, even to the extent of when a solicitor called on the phone and I found myself saying, 'Oh, I'm just on the way out the door.' Then I would ask myself, why didn't I just say, 'This is not a good time for me,' which would have been the truth? There was a sort of keen awareness."

"Also," she says, "I'm not sure if this was a negative effect, but I have become more suspicious of things in general, because I have looked into the ways people lie. If some charity asked me for money, for example, I used to simply read the letter and assume the charity was real. This may simply prove I was incredibly naive at one point, but I have become more conscious of the ability of people to deceive and how they do it, and therefore a little more suspicious of people."

Even friends? I ask. Sullivan laughs, and says, "Well, I haven't been invited to many dinner parties lately. Maybe people are afraid that I will catch them in a lie and use them as an example."

"Of course," Sullivan continues, "everybody lies. You almost have the sense that people think that [lying] is just part of life--but on the other hand, when lies come out, when we do find out that someone has lied to us, there is always a sense of outrage. We want the truth; we ask for facts; we feel injured. And when we do the same thing to others, on some level we have a sense that we are injuring them."

Hostile Circumstances

Any fool can tell the truth, but it requires a man of some sense to know how to tell a lie well.

--Samuel Butler

IN THE CONCISE BOOK OF LYING, Sullivan retells a remarkable example of war-time lying. It's the story of Major William Martin, "the man who never was" (there was later a book and a movie by that name). The man who never was was a solution to a problem the Allied forces came up against after the North African campaign: Their next target, Sicily, was blindingly obvious. As Churchill put it, with typical tongue, "Everyone but a bloody fool would know it's Sicily." How to throw the German enemy off?

Two relatively junior British officers, Lt. Cmdr. Ewen Montagu of naval intelligence and Squadron Leader Sir Archibald Cholmondley, Montagu's Air Ministry counterpart, came up with a daring plan: They would create and plant false documents on a body that seemed to be that of a British officer, and deliver said body to the enemy in a way that made it seem fortuitous.

The mode of delivery, it was decided, would be via the sea, as if the officer had been the victim of an airplane crash or boat mishap (actually, he would be ejected by a submarine). An appropriate body was found--a 30-some-year-old who had died of pneumonia (the resultant water in his lungs could be mistaken for seawater)--and Montagu's team put together his identity.

The team provided the corpse with a name--William Martin, one of the most common names on the Navy list--and a fiancée, whose picture went into the courier bag chained to the body's waist. Maj. Morgan was also supplied with theater ticket stubs, overdue bills, an ID card, and letters from a critical father, all elements of a life quirky enough to be taken for real.

Also in the courier's bag went the Top Secret correspondence between one Gen. Sir Archibald Nye, vice chief of the Imperial General Staff, to Gen. Sir Harold Alexander, the British commander in North Africa under American Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

This correspondence described, alongside friendly chitchat, how Eisenhower was having to make do with Sicily as a second-rate cover for his Mediterranean operation. The implication was that (1) there were two Mediterranean operations in force, and that (2) Sicily was not the true target. If the Germans swallowed the ruse, they could only conclude that Sardinia and/or the Balkans were the real targets, and they would have to split their own defenses between these two geographies.

Montagu's team decided to deliver the body to Spain, where the government was known for abetting German intelligence. Packed on dry ice, Maj. Martin made the trip via submarine. On the morning of April 30, 1943, his body was found by Spanish fishermen, and the documents found in the courier bag were delivered to German intelligence.

They bought the story ("The authenticity of the captured documents is beyond doubt," German intelligence reported), and the course of the war was changed. When Allied forces landed on Sicily the following July, German and Italian defenses had been much reduced.

Patriotism and Lying

In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a body-guard of lies.

--Winston Churchill

RECENTLY, IN A TELEVISION interview with Ed Bradley, none other than Walter Cronkite reiterated the Churchill quote above to make the point that it is OK if the government lies sometimes. But Cronkite then went on to advocate the presence of reporters--and cameras--on the front lines in Afghanistan. Some of this footage, he said, would be censored, but it would all be there as a record, to view as the truth at some time in the future.

We are at a historical moment when the truth, in the form of valid information, is vitally important, but when it seems unpatriotic to express the desire to know the truth. Not knowing the truth is "better for us." We are complicit in secrecy for the sake of security.

One of the problems with our understanding that lying is morally wrong, but at the same time "necessary and useful," is that since everyone lies it is difficult to maintain a righteous indignation against those unfortunate few who get caught. And as Sullivan remarks in her book, we may even feel admiration for a liar, since to spin a lie takes some skill. This ambiguous admiration shows up in the Trickster myths of many cultures, in which a wily character like the Raven (in Native American mythology) dupes the gods into giving up some powerful thing, like the sun, to Earth-dwellers.

The story of the Trojan Horse is another Trickster myth. In fact, admiration of Tricksters carries over into much of our understanding of wartime strategy. Which may explain the uncomfortable disconnect between peoples' rightful response calling the terrorists "cowards," and our acknowledgment that their plan, an utterly heinous one, was also intelligently devious. In other words, they "took" us, in much the same way the Greeks "took" the citizens of Troy. They took advantage of our weaknesses. When Susan Sontag, in The New Yorker, suggested that their act did not qualify the terrorists as cowards but in some sense the opposite, she was touching upon this terrible wartime ambiguity.

The difference, of course, is that the citizens of Troy knew they were at war, while we, the citizens of the United States, did not. Some would argue that we should have known we were at war; nevertheless, most of us did not.

Recent Examples

'THE PENTAGON has spent millions of dollars to prevent Western media from seeing highly accurate civilian satellite pictures of the effects of bombing in Afghanistan, it was revealed yesterday....

"The decision to shut down access to satellite images was taken last Thursday, after reports of heavy civilian casualties from the overnight bombing of training camps near Darunta, northwest of Jalalabad. Instead of invoking its legal powers, the Pentagon bought exclusive rights to all Ikonos satellite pictures of Afghanistan off Space Imaging, the company which runs the satellite. The agreement was made retrospectively to the start of the bombing raids....

"The decision to use commercial rather than legal powers to bar access to satellite images was heavily criticized by U.S. intelligence specialists last night. Since images of the bombed Afghan bases would not have shown the position of U.S. forces or compromised U.S. military security, the ban could have been challenged by news media ..."

--Duncan Campbell, The Guardian (U.K.), Oct. 17

I Never Lie

The truth that survives is simply the lie that is pleasantest to believe.

--H.L. Mencken

I MAY AS WELL ADMIT, at this point, that I lie. I have lied about how many sex partners I've had (to dates, yes--but not to doctors). I have lied during job interviews (In my answer to "Describe how you solved a difficult work problem ..." I omitted the part where I cried under my desk). I have lied to my mother ("I'm FINE! Really. And I love the shirt you bought me."). I have lied to my cat.

But lying never makes me feel good. At best, I resent the other party for their complicity. You just know, sometimes, when a person or a pet wants you to lie to them, and it is so easy to give them what they want. At worst, I feel dirty. And not in a good way.

Not just in pop songs, but in real life, lying and love are inextricably bound together. Our most elaborate lies are all about love: engineered to gain access to it, or to--at least, so we think at the time--protect the object of it, or to make ourselves look better and thus more lovable.

The first bit of conspiracy I undertook was in the fourth grade, when Rodney, a jet-haired boy whose lower lip made me think of Twinkies, asked me to go with him. I said yes but then was immediately and unaccountably embarrassed, and felt that my fourth grade love was something I should keep from my parents. Rodney gave me a necklace with a heart pendant. Every day on the bus ride home I would remove this necklace, and saunter single and innocent back to my unsuspecting household.

Then came the evening I forgot to remove the necklace, and at dinner my mother asked me where I'd gotten it. Immediately, I found my mouth rejecting the truth. "Julie gave it to me," I said, shrugging with exaggerated casualness. "How nice of Julie," my mother said. "Maybe you should invite her over for dinner."

This snag threw me into an active panic, and the next day at school I convened with Julie to enlist her help in the jungle of deceit. I told her she had to say she'd given me the necklace. Julie balked. It was then that I had the brilliant idea: I would hand Julie the necklace, and then she would present it to me, as a gift, and then it would be as if she had given me the necklace, and to say so to my parents wouldn't be a lie. Swayed by the inarguable logic of this, Julie agreed.

Needless to say, the dinner was a complete success.

Boosted by this example of how easy it was to turn a lie around, I embarked on a long career of lying-that-was-not-lying. I was not lying, for example, when I said my homework had been eaten by my brother's hamster; I merely neglected to mention that it was I who had fed it. And I certainly wasn't lying when, at the age of 20, I told my mother I loved the man I'd known for six weeks and was going to marry him. By that point, I had learned to lie to myself so well that the truth was simply unrecognizable.

My impetuous marriage, however, turned out to be the proving ground for truth in my life, if for no other reason than that it became impossible to deny certain facts.

In Other Words

It is not a lie, it's a terminological inexactitude.

--Alexander Haig

THERE IS A DIFFERENCE between lying and deceit. Deception, from the Latin root "decipere," may or may not imply blameworthiness (according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary), "since it may suggest cheating or merely tactical resource" (all weight on that "merely"). A lie, on the other hand, from the Old English "leogan," always imputes guilty dishonesty.

Variations on the lie include prevarication, which softens the implications of a lie by "implying quibbling or confusing the issue" (which sounds like the liar is pleading stupidity); equivocation, which implies "using words having more than one sense so as to seem to say one thing but intend another," a must in politics; and, of course, fibbing, which the dictionary dismisses in a motherly way as the "telling of a trivial untruth."

There is a synonym for equivocation that I propose we should prefer: "palter." To palter means "to make unreliable statements of fact or intention or insincere promises." This, I think, describes what politicians do, without the veneer of respectable rationality lent by the less colloquial-sounding "equivocate."

The dictionary I used does not provide as a synonym something else I associate with lying, and that is "opportunism."

The opportunist, like the liar, has to be able to discern what his listener really wants to hear, what will sway him toward acquiescence. He has to be able to figure out exactly the right time to take advantage of someone or something, and these predictive qualities are based on an ability to "get in the head" of the other person involved.

Maybe this is, in the end, what's so truly disturbing about liars: They are so obviously capable of empathy for another person's experience, but they choose to use this empathy for purely personal gain. And maybe this, too, is what confuses us about the moral ambiguity of lying. Opportunism, after all, is not really an immoral behavior in a free market; it's just good business sense.

In any place that's not a free market, opportunism is just opportunism. Michael Moore recently wrote that Americans have to stop believing that the rest of the world has to live in poverty so that we can afford better running shoes. To the extent that we do accept this kind of blind free market, opportunism is a way of lying to ourselves.

And that's the most problematic kind of lying of all.

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From the November 22-28, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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