The Temptation we all Enjoy

by Kenneth L. Stewart, Ph.D.  

This coming Monday is Washington's birthday. And like Lincoln's birthday-when we are reminded we need to avoid master-slave relationships if we want to have passion, this President's birthday evokes other aspects of the politics of the family. I'm referring to the all too human tendency to tell a lie. We all lie. Some of us more frequently or more boldly than others, but we all lie.

Sissela Bok, in her book: Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life says that it would be hard to imagine a society where we every word and gesture could never be counted on as being true. All the questions asked and the answers given would be worthless. If we could tell the difference between truthful or deceptive statements, actions and choices would be undermined from the outset. There has to be a minimal degree of trust in our communications or else our language and actions would be nothing more than stabs in the dark. The choices we make in everyday life depend on estimates of what we believe to be true - and these estimates rely on information from others. And lies can distort this information, therefore distorting situations as we perceive them to be.

If knowledge gives power, then lies affect the distribution of power -- adding power to the liar and taking away from the deceived. And the degree of uncertainty in how we look at the choices we have are manipulated through deception and lies. Through deception we can make a situation seem either more uncertain or more certain - as lying affects the alternatives seemed possible in any situation, or the estimates of risks and benefits. So, when the dimension of certainty is manipulated, power is gained over the choices of those deceived. Sometimes when we are deceived we make take an action we might otherwise have not taken, and it can also prevent action by obscuring the necessity of choice. The essence of camouflage and cover-ups is the creation of apparent normality in order to avert suspicion.

Yet, we all depend on deception to get out of a scrape or to save face or to avoid hurting the feelings of others. We may lie about a smaller crime to protect ourselves from being asked about a larger issue. Heavy drinkers lie about how many drinks they've had, and hope to avoid a discussion of the general drift their drinking has taken in the past few months. We may lie to protect ourselves from further punishment.

It is sometimes difficult to sort out our crimes and misdemeanors all by ourselves, given the tendency for us to want to protect ourselves from exposure. We lie to each other because we want to get away with something we shouldn't get away with. Often it boils down to wanting something that we don't have; whether it's a small item at the store that we shoplift or some passion we take in an illicit relationship. To ask for what we want is sometimes out of the question. We either wouldn't get it anyway or shouldn't have it in the first place. There would be lectures about tight money or probing inquiries into just what do we want this thing for and how can we justify having it. So, not being able to mount a credible argument, we lie... and then steal. If we want something more from a spouse, we may hint at it, maybe even ask for it, but instead of pushing the argument too far, we give up and go get it elsewhere.

Getting what we want by lying is easier, it's more expedient. There is a lot less hassle involved. We quickly and easily tell a lie just to speed things up, to get on with our day or lives and not be hassled by all the explanation, the questions raised, the reprimands, the involved discussions or red tape that is involved in negotiating what we want. Following the rules of everyday honesty - of personal integrity - is just too much hassle, too complicated, too overwhelming and takes too much time.

Bok tells us that "the very stress on individualism, on competition, on achieving material success which so marks our society also generates intense pressure to cut corners. To win an election, to increase one's income, to outsell competitors - such motives impel many of participate in forms of duplicity they might otherwise resist. The more widespread they judge these practices to be, the stronger will be the pressures to join, even compete, in deviousness." (p. 244).

Cutting corners, saving face, getting and keeping power are all too common in the public discourse and in private life. The cynical awareness of these deceptive practices leads to the exploitation of talk shows, tell and confess bestsellers, and kind of dance of deception instead of dance of intimacy. When family relationships are infected with habits of lying and deception, family. life resembles a pirate ship - we may be all in or on it together, but we never rest easy, and we always watch our back. Its exhausting, it makes everyday life feel unsafe, and it sure isn't intimacy. To feel safe, to feel accepted, to feel understood, to be welcomed in, to belong .. all these experiences thrive in settings of honesty and wither in the paranoid atmospheres of lying.

Lying, Confession, Forgiveness, and Hope