Friday Takeaway: Why we lie

For the Bulletin
Thursday, January 03, 2019

Mark Twain, in his travelogue “Following the Equator” (1897), said that truth is stranger than fiction because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities while truth doesn’t.

I have a friend who is a lawyer. Every once in a while, I ask him how she manages to defend a criminal who she knows committed the crime. Her answer: “I lie.” And how does she lie? “I convince myself the criminal is telling the truth, although deep down I know he isn’t. If I fail at this conviction, my client will likely be found guilty.”

I tell my friend that lawyers are like actors. She smiles. “And like spies, too.” she adds. “Or a novelist.” For the duration of the trial, she pretends to be someone else.

Lying — everyone does it. It isn’t one of the cardinal sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. Nor is it one of the Ten Commandments. We are taught, from when we are young, that it is morally wrong. Yet the behavior is common, so much so it might even get you to the White House.

In such cases, it is useful to invoke the expression: he got caught in his own lies. That is, the trumped world is made of untruths. Sophocles talked of Greek sophists who stated that everything that surrounds us is a lie, including this sentence.

All of which brings me to the uncontested fact that there are all types of lies. For instance, we may lie to cover up a misstep; not doing so could be imprudent. We may lie to avoid people or to escape responsibility. We may lie to shape a positive image of ourselves. Or because a motive is unclear. Or to find humor and not to be rude.

Some lies are malicious, of course, but a lie might save a person’s life. We might even feel more genuine, more authentic if we lie.

It tickles inside when we do, though. We’re taken over by a funny feeling, the sensation of having crossed ourselves. Will we be caught?

Let’s be honest. We don’t get upset because a person lies to us: we get upset because we are no longer able to believe that person. These are two altogether different things.

Even when we cherish truth as essential — and some of us do — life in society is about pretense, the recognition that whatever we do is an act. We are told, at an early age, that truth is what matters. And it does. Except that nobody is able to explain, with absolute certainty, what truth is.

Merriam-Webster is notoriously evasive about it. Truth, it says, “is the body of real things, events, and facts.” But what is real? Is an emotion like fear real? Or is the memory of someone who died not real because it is intangible? Should the same be said for belief in God? Do all real things need to be things, events, and facts? We are unquestionably on shaky ground.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Yiddish writer and Nobel Prize for Literature winner, wrote a delightful story in 1957, “Gimpel the Fool,” about a baker who is a simpleton. Gimpel doesn’t understand the value of lies, which makes me anxious. Everyone in his town knows he is a simpleton and takes advantage of him. The woman he marries regularly betrays him. She has a number of children with different men but manages to convince Gimpel they are all his — until the day Gimpel finds his wife in bed with one of his employees.

The lovers try to convince him he is imagining the whole thing. But Gimpel isn’t that foolish. He knows what’s real and what isn’t. So he decides to take revenge. But — and this “but” is crucial — he changes his mind. The reason is simple: it is better to be happy within a lie, he tells himself, than to live in a world that is sorrowfully truthful.

Twain wrote “Following the Equator” because he was on the verge of bankruptcy. He decided to evade his creditors by reaching as far away as possible in the confines of the British Empire, where, as was well known, the sun never set. He lectured — in English — to all sorts of cultures. What he found out was that each one understood the truth in a different way. Which was right? And if one was, were the others sheer liars?

In the end, Twain understood that wasn’t a matter of accuracy. It was about pragmatism. Which truth is better suited for the world in which we happen to perform?  

I find it invaluable that in Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), a precursor — by almost two hundred years — of today’s Merriam-Webster, the definition of truth is “conformity to fact or reality.” And it adds: “Conformity of words to thoughts.” In other words, it isn’t what is real that matters but how we conform ourselves — through language — to whatever we decide is real. Webster was more of a relativist than his successors.

Yes, lies are abhorrent. We lie in order to survive, but only the truth will set us free. In times like ours where deceit reigns, telling truth is an act of courage (even though truth is a mirage).

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of “In Contrast” on NEPR.