Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The invention of lying

What if our world is a place where people only tell the truth? Where no one can tell a lie or even knows what a lie is. A place where no one can just imagine saying something that isn’t true.

Well, this has happened, except it’s only in a movie called “The Invention of Lying.” Ricky Gervais, the principal actor in the original “Office” has a created a world where people will just swallow anything: hook, line and sinker, never mind how preposterous or stupid. But one thing that would be lacking in this kind of place is humour because how more sick could it be than to fool stupid people.

An organization that I had referred to in my earlier blog is virtually the antithesis of Gervais’ world, where the norm seems to be that lies and deception are more important than the truth. Here you don’t even have to invent lies. Lying has become so pervasive that one person’s lies are considered the truth by many of his friends no matter whether their conscience tells them otherwise. Worse, acceptance of his lies has even led to changing the rules of the organization, and no one really cares if the group’s collective assent to give his lies the cloth of authority is right or not. In a sense, it’s almost similar to Gervais’ make-believe world where everyone is now assumed to be telling the truth every time.

In reality, a lie can easily purport to be the truth, not because it’s really true. The weight of a lie becoming the truth depends heavily on how it is accepted. In a democratic tumult of ideas, for instance, where a lie is pitted against the truth, the latter may lose out by a simple tyranny of numbers.

Take the example of the raucous tea parties staged by Republican diehard supporters in the United States in opposing President Barack Obama’s health reform initiative. Somehow all the noise and boisterous numbers that appeared everyday in front of the US Capitol had watered down the public health option. The final bill, if ever passed by the houses of Congress after too much haggling and trading, when it reaches Obama’s table for signature may not even have any resemblance to the proposal initiated by the incumbent administration.

In my organization in Toronto, a counterrevolution of supporters of the aforementioned liar has formed a fortress of defence against the opposition who stands for the truth. In this struggle between reason and unabashed passion, the outcome will simply be determined by the simplest rule of numbers. If truth be hanged, and passion gets emotionally carried away by the wily devices and tricks used by their legal commentators, those who fought for reason can only raise their heads up high, or low, if they prefer to continue mourning for such is the heavy price of the democratic politics of numbers.

For the moralist or ethicist, the question of lying creates great difficulties. There are those who hold that it is never allowable while others are more accommodating.

Plato, for example, in his Republic, allows doctors and statesmen to lie occasionally for the welfare of their patients and for the common weal. Yet it was the same Plato who wrote that lies are not only evil in themselves, but also they infect the soul of those who utter them. In the end, Plato stood for the uncompromising view that a moral life has room only for the truth.

Modern philosophers are also divided in the same way. Immanuel Kant allowed a lie under no circumstance. Kant believed that all persons are born with an intrinsic worth he called human dignity. This dignity allows humans to capably make their own decisions and guides them in making their choices.

Most modern non-Catholic writers admit the lawfulness of the lie of necessity. Under today’s pragmatism, which denies the existence of an absolute truth and measures the morality of actions on their effect on society and on the individual, it seems the portals are more open to all lies. The downside of this pragmatism is that lies, whether white or simply expedient, are apt to pave the way for others of a darker hue with more serious and injurious consequences than ever imagined.

When the habit of untruthfulness becomes an accepted practice or a way of life, as it is in the aforementioned organization, it may practically be impossible to limit its whim to matters which are harmless. For interest and habit alike inevitably lead to the violation of truth and to the detriment of others. What the leaders of this organization may fail to realize is that gaining momentary victory in putting lie over truth diminishes and erodes their leadership and the confidence and trust of the general membership. After more than 30 years of existence, this situation may precipitate a ruinous split which the leaders of the organization wanted to avoid in the first place.

Lying is an issue worth examining, as many people today believe it is becoming a bigger and pervasive social problem than before. A Time magazine cover story concluded that “Lies flourish in social uncertainty, when people no longer understand, or agree on, the rules governing their behaviour toward one another.”

Perhaps because we have turned ourselves into a mixture of philosophers, those who are sometimes rigid or virtuous or pragmatic, sharing no common ground. We need to involve more people to consider the ethical perspectives when confronting a situation that tempts a lie and never to buckle down from our commitment to follow through when our dissatisfaction with the ethical value of reasoning seems to weigh down on us.

We need not succumb to the idea that the truth does not always have to be the whole truth, for this makes us feel like Nietzsche is right: that lies are necessary as much as they complement life, that human relationships are never truly free of the uneasiness and tensions which our jealousies and uncertainties bring.

Abraham Lincoln once said: “If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem. It is true that you may fool all of the people some of the time; you can never fool some of the people all the time; but you can’t fool all the people all of the time.”

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