Sunday, September 13, 2009

The L Word

My acquaintance and classmate Edward Malone - a Stanford grad, lawyer and very smart guy all around - recently wondered out loud on Facebook:

Rather than continuing to focus on the emotional outburst of [U.S.] Representative Joe Wilson who called the President [of the U.S., Barack Obama,] a liar, why don't the cheerleaders in the mainstream media do their job and investigate whether the President was actually lying?

Excellent question.

Now, I'm not going to get into the health care debate here, nor am I going to hold forth on whether President Obama was actually lying, engaging in acceptable political maneuvering, mistaken or telling the simple truth when he said that illegal aliens wouldn't be covered under his proposal.

The broader question is: if someone is lying, what's wrong with calling him out on it? The way I see it, an honest person would welcome the chance to defend her views, and a dishonest person should be called on it.

What's more, if we condemn people who call others liars, we get the same results as if we condemned, say, people who investigated child abuse. You wouldn't be surprised when we got more child abuse, would you?

Not to mention that sometimes lies are directly at someone else's expense. For example, if a group of friends arrange to meet somewhere, and one of them shows up without cash to pay (this being one of those rare places that doesn't take credit cards), the organizer might feel embarrassed at having forgotten to tell him that credit cards aren't accepted. Lying - "I told you to bring cash!" - wouldn't just save the organizer from embarrassment, but also put it on the shoulders of the friend...unfairly. If the friend responded "No you didn't," would he be doing a Bad Thing? I say heck no.

One may say "But what if it was a lie for a good cause? Should we unfairly condemn the person in that case?" Let's assume for the sake of argument that there is such an animal (outside the rare instance of, say, a homicidal maniac knocking on your door and demanding to know where your kid is). If there are extenuating circumstances for something you do, then you shouldn't get angry at the mere statement that you've done it; you can just say "Yes, I did it, and here's why...."

For example, we normally abhor violence. And if I say "John hit Mary," if it isn't true I'd better be prepared for some consequences. On the other hand, if John hit Mary because she in turn had just smashed a bottle and was raising the jagged-edged top half over Larry's head, John needn't get angry at all by my saying he hit her. He can just point out "Yes, I did that because she was about to seriously hurt Larry."

Now let's get back to lying for a good cause. The way I see it, unless the group you're in is fundamentally evil, you have an obligation to abide by its standards. (If it is fundamentally evil, you need to leave. If you're reading this, you probably can manage that.) Abiding by its standards doesn't just mean not saying "Hey, I'm going to break the rules right now," any more than avoiding stealing just means not saying "Your money or your life!" It means not breaking the rules covertly either.

Maybe your 15-year-old son is especially mature for his age and can handle R-rated movies, and you don't feel you should have to go with him. Quite understandable. Is it OK for him to say he's 17 so he'll be treated like the mature person he really is? No.

If you feel that a situation should be treated differently, you can try to persuade others to see things your way. If you can't, maybe you don't have such a compelling case.

And if there's an across-the-board policy, like the age minimum of 17 to see R-rated movies unsupervised, that means there's an interest in consistency, and you certainly have no right to breach that.

Bottom line: Most of the time, people should tell the truth even when it's inconvenient. That's not just my opinion - the very fact that people get so angry about accusations of lying means society recognizes how important it is. Precisely because it's so important that people tell the truth, I think it's a good idea to call out liars when possible. And it's certainly hypocritical to lie and then get mad when someone calls you on it.

Interestingly, we have so many other phrases for it: "Not being entirely straightforward," "fibbing," "" and so forth. If someone says that, you're expected to understand that somebody's being accused of knowingly saying something that's untrue - that is, of lying. But somehow if you use the word "fibbing" it's not supposed to cause the same kind of upset. Can someone explain that, please?

And why is saying that someone is lying, or that something is a lie, equated to calling him a liar? Last week, I drove Emily home from work...does that make me a cabdriver?

Bearing in mind that most people lie on a daily basis, maybe we could recognize some basic distinctions.

That said...I also know that certain bodies - including the U.S. House of Representatives and the British House of Commons - have explicit rules against calling someone a liar. Or for that matter a fibber, or otherwise even implying that someone is being dishonest. And truth is no defense.

I also know that back in the old days, calling someone a liar or a cheat was considered cause for mortal combat. (For that matter, it still is, just not among folks like congressmen and presidents.) The idea is that if you accuse someone of being dishonest, you're in effect saying that there isn't enough room in town for both you and him.

So just in case some people know something I don't - stranger things have happened - let me put this out there, especially to my NT readers. Does accusing someone of lying make her feel - in a way she can't overcome - that she can't work with you anymore? Does it give her cause to believe you feel that way?

And if so, is avoiding that social turmoil worth the downside of letting people lie even to break the rules or hurt others?

1 comment:

mama edge said...

Until autism became part of my life, it never occurred to me that lying is, for better or worse, a social skill. Do I call people on it when they lie to me? Very rarely. In part, I want to avoid the "social turmoil", as you call it.

But mostly, I don't see the point in confronting a lie. People tend to get defensive when they're accused of lying, which often leads to more lying or other manipulative behaviors. And often, the lies are so unimportant in the greater scheme of things. If I know the truth, that's what matters. In future, I know to be careful in trusting that person. That's good enough for me.

Only lies that have significant consequences for me or others are worth confronting, in my view. Example: Wusband claims he's not using drugs when I can see signs of impairment.

So, how do I confront a person who has lied to me? I try to do so with maximum tact. I'd never accuse someone of lying in front of other people -- that's just bad form, a way to shame and judge and grandstand. In fact, I don't "accuse" at all. I go to the person, one on one, and I'd say something like, "I am having trouble with what you said earlier. It doesn't fit with the facts I have, including..." My goal is not to get a confession, really; rather, it is to limit the damage a lie can do.

Notably, there are many things where two people can have different versions of the truth that are more or less equally valid. We have to be careful when we are certain that we know THE truth. Often, there's more than one truth to be told.