False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil – Plato
If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember everything – Mark Twain
Ask no questions, and you’ll hear no lies – James Joyce, Ulysses
What is it about lying that brings out such intense reactions from so many people? What I’m referring to is the subtle form of lying that involves the perception that someone is lying to you. The facts may or may not be true but you believe the words are false. The result is once you label the liar, you are unlikely to trust anything the person says or does. Just hearing their words could send you into a fit of rage as you expect to hear more lies.
Depending on your belief system the taboo of lying can have deep roots. In the Bible there are many references to lying – You shall not steal, neither deal falsely, neither lie one to another. Leviticus 19:11 or Proverbs 12:22 Lying lips are abomination to the LORD: but they that deal truly are his delight. And, of course, Moses captured the sentiment in one of his commandments Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
Just as the ten commandments are viewed as moral imperatives, in Yoga Philosophy there are 5 yamas (restraints) and 5 niymas (observances) which are guiding principals of living a good life. The second Yama, Satya or Truthfulness, is to speak our truth. It is secondary to the first yama which is do no harm. In this case, speaking one’s truth should never be placed before doing harm to yourself or another.
The ethical judgment of another’s communication as being a truth versus lie is a concept that has been swirling around in my head for decades. One person’s truth can often be another person’s lie based on perception. In the business world, I would frequently hear someone refer to another person as a liar. At the base of the accusation, is a different belief system between two individuals. In one case, a fellow employee who I’ll call John was in a highly charged emotional state one day as he ranted on that our boss was a liar. Since I didn’t want to work for a liar, I started to question John about why he thought our boss was lying. In this particular case, my boss, a good businessman, modified decisions frequently, based on the information he had at hand. Sometimes this information contradicted John’s beliefs about what was technically possible. John judged my boss as a liar if he believed my boss’s motives were not in alignment with John’s view. John was a skilled engineer. His aim was to build the best technical product possible. My boss’s aim was to satisfy a discriminating customer within a certain budget and close a business deal so the company would grow. Not everyone had my boss’s information or perspective so when he modified what he communicated, it could seem to be a series of misinformation at best, lies at worst.
The internet has many definitions for lying. One link that caught my interest was – http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/lying/lying_1.shtml The following definition from the link clearly fits the business case I described above:
What is a lie?
Lying is a form of deception, but not all forms of deception are lies.
Lying is giving some information while believing it to be untrue, intending to deceive by doing so.
A lie has three essential features:
- A lie communicates some information
- The liar intends to deceive or mislead
- The liar believes that what they are ‘saying’ is not true
There are some features that people think are part of lying but aren’t actually necessary:
- A lie does not have to give false information
- A lie does not have to be told with a bad (malicious) intention – white lies are an example of lies told with a good intention
This definition says that what makes a lie a lie is that the liar intends to deceive (or at least to mislead) the person they are lying to. It says nothing about whether the information given is true or false.
The key point in the above definition is the intention to deceive or mislead and that the liar believes what they are saying is not true. Many years ago, the conclusion I came to about my boss that many of my fellow employees did not share, is that he honestly did not think he was intending to deceive or speak an untruth. He believed he was making the best decisions for the benefit of his customers and company.
The concept that motive is what drives the liar is interesting. With the diversity of belief systems in the world today, any information could be construed as a lie if it differs from your own beliefs. Understanding the motivation behind what someone may be attempting to communicate, is as complex as human nature. I have come to think that the perception of a lie is not black and white. It takes some empathy and consideration of the circumstance. Our own belief systems and resultant perceptions can fuel our emotions around the perceived lie. I’m not suggesting that we should condone lying, what I am suggesting is before we react to what we think might be a lie, we do some exploration of our own beliefs and what may motivating the perception of a lie.
As humans, we all have told a white lie from time to time. I sometimes have trouble trying to understand what is true for me in any particular moment. As I hear judgments made about others’ truths especially during this political season, I seek understanding. Over the years, I’ve tried to cultivate awareness if I consciously or unconsciously “fib”. I try to understand my motivation and insure there is no malicious intent in my statements. Because of my own self-exploration on this topic, I often don’t have the emotional reaction to a perceived lie that many of my friends and colleagues do. While this approach may not work for everyone, it helps keep me somewhat sane during a heated political season. If all else fails, The Capitol Steps, a political satire group have put political context to Simon and Garfunkel’s song – The Boxer. Rather than getting embroiled in emotions this election season, if the ability to understand escapes me, I hum the refrain – Lie, la, Lie… which could be a theme song for either party.
June 2016 ©Denyse Le Fever