I think it’s fair to say that honesty is on the ropes. Deception has become commonplace at all levels of contemporary life. At one level that consists of “He’s in a meeting,” or “No, that dress doesn’t make you look fat.” On another level it refers to “I never had sexual relations with that woman … ” or “We found the weapons of mass destruction.” High-profile dissemblers vie for headlines: fabulist college professors, fabricating journalists, stonewalling bishops, book-cooking executives, and their friends the creative accountants. They are the most visible face of a far broader phenomenon: the routinization of dishonesty. I’m not talking just about those who try to fib their way out of a tight spot (“I wasn’t out drinking last night; I had to work late”) but casual lying done for no apparent reason (“Yes, I was a cheerleader in high school”).
Ludwig Wittgenstein once observed how often he lied when the truth would have done just as well. This Viennese philosopher has many modern disciples. The gap between truth and lies has shrunk to a sliver. Choosing which to tell is largely a matter of convenience. We lie for all the usual reasons, or for no apparent reason at all. It’s no longer assumed that truth telling is even our default setting. When Monica Lewinsky said she’d lied and been lied to all her life, few eyebrows were raised. Our attitudes toward lying have grown, to say the least, tolerant. “It’s now as acceptable to lie as it is to exceed the speed limit when driving,” observed British psychologist Philip Hodson. “Nobody thinks twice about it.”
The tattered condition of contemporary candor is suggested by how often we use phrases such as “quite frankly,” “let me be frank,” “let me be candid,” “truth be told,” “to tell you the truth,” “to be truthful,” “the truth is,” “truthfully,” “in all candor,” “in all honesty,” “in my honest opinion,” and “to be perfectly honest.” Such verbal tics are a rough gauge of how routinely we deceive each other. If we didn’t, why all the disclaimers?
Most of us lie and are lied to on a regular basis. These lies run the gamut from “I like sushi,” to “I love you.” Even though we’re more likely to deceive strangers than friends, we save our most serious lies for those we care about most. Many have to do with sex. One priest said he rarely hears a confession that doesn’t include some element of sexual deceit. A colleague of his said it’s a rare day that a parishioner doesn’t confess to telling lies, sometimes with figures in hand (“20 times to the same person, father”). He couldn’t believe that they actually keep track.
As long as human beings have had words to say, they’ve said words that weren’t true. At the same time, most societies have had some variation of Honesty is the best policy as a norm. What concerns me is the loss of a stigma attached to telling lies, and a widespread acceptance of the fact that lies can be told with impunity. Lying has become, essentially, a no-fault transgression. “That’s okay,” we say of those who are caught dissembling. “She meant well.” “Who am I to judge?” And the clincher: “What is truth, anyway?”
Nearly everyone trims and embroiders the truth and hopes for the best. I’ve been known to round down how many miles an hour I was driving, and round up the size of audiences at my lectures. I also get lied to a lot, big lies and small lies, stretchers and whoppers, fun lies and devious ones, petty fibs and felony lies. Who doesn’t? Not that I wring my hands and gnash my teeth when I’m deceived. Like most people, I’ve come to accept dishonesty as commonplace, even routine. Perhaps it would be better if we didn’t.
The obvious cause of dishonesty’s rise is ethical decline. From this perspective, moral compasses have broken down. Our sense of right and wrong has gone into remission. Conscience is considered old-fashioned. Conviction has been replaced by cynicism. Restoring prayer in schools, some argue, would be a giant step toward renewed morality. Or hanging the Ten Commandments on walls of public buildings. Nonsense. There is no evidence that early Americans were more moral than their descendants. It’s doubtful that former-day Americans – the ones who broke treaties with Indians, enslaved Africans, and exploited child labor – had better ethics than current ones. Nor was antebellum religious faith as devout as we like to imagine. Two centuries ago church membership was far lower than it is today, involving less than 10 percent of all Americans.
There never was an ethical nirvana in America or anywhere else; only a time when it was harder to tell lies, and the consequences were greater if one got caught. This book’s premise is that we may be no more prone to making things up than our ancestors were, but we are better able to get away with deceiving others, more likely to be let off the hook if exposed, and in the process convince ourselves that no harm’s been done. As we’ll explore, the mobility and anonymity of contemporary life facilitate dishonesty. So do deceit-friendly intellectual trends, the many celebrity role models of self-invention, and repeated instances of high-profile dissembling that desensitize us to its dangers.
In the Reagan-Clinton-Bush era we’re so accustomed to being deceived that we forget what a stunner it was in 1960 when Dwight Eisenhower admitted that government officials hadn’t told the truth when he said that a U-2 spy plane shot down by the Soviet Union had been doing weather research. As recently as the early 1970s we could still get outraged about Richard Nixon’s serial deceits. Jimmy Carter was elected in part because he promised never to tell us a lie. By the time of Monica Lewinsky and weapons of mass destruction, the mood had changed. Now our attitude seemed to be: Everyone lies, especially our leaders. What’s the big deal? Dishonesty has come to feel less like the exception and more like the norm. Along with our acceptance of lying as commonplace we’ve developed ingenious ways to let ourselves off ethical hooks.
Even though there have always been liars, lies have usually been told with hesitation, a dash of anxiety, a bit of guilt, a little shame, at least some sheepishness. Now, clever people that we are, we have come up with rationales for tampering with truth so we can dissemble guilt-free. I call it post-truth. We live in a post-truth era. Post-truthfulness exists in an ethical twilight zone. It allows us to dissemble without considering ourselves dishonest. When our behavior conflicts with our values, what we’re most likely to do is reconceive our values. Few of us want to think of ourselves as being unethical, let alone admit that to others, so we devise alternative approaches to morality. Think of them as alt.ethics. This term refers to ethical systems in which dissembling is considered okay, not necessarily wrong, therefore not really “dishonest” in the negative sense of the word.
Even if we do tell more lies more than ever, no one wants to be considered a liar. That word sounds so harsh, so judgmental. Men in particular are extremely careful to avoid giving other men any opportunity to say “You callin’ me a liar?” Once those fatal words are spoken, it’s hard for dialogue to continue without fists being thrown, or worse. The word lie itself is both a description and a weapon. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this term “is normally a violent expression of moral reprobation, which in polite conversation tends to be avoided.” That’s why we come up with avoidance mechanisms: rationales for dishonesty, reasons why it’s okay to lie, not nearly as bad as we once thought, maybe not so bad after all. The emotional valence of words associated with deception has declined. We no longer tell lies. Instead we “misspeak.” We “exaggerate.” We “exercise poor judgment.” “Mistakes were made,” we say. The term “deceive” gives way to the more playful “spin.” At worst, saying “I wasn’t truthful” sounds better than “I lied.” Nor would we want to accuse others of lying; we say they’re “in denial.” That was sometimes said even of Richard Nixon, the premier liar of modern times, who went to his grave without ever confessing to anything more than errors of judgment. Presidential aspirant Gary Hart admitted only to “thoughtlessness and misjudgment” after reporters revealed Hart’s dishonesty (not only about his sex life but about his age). When, during a primary debate, John Kerry referred to a nonexistent poll that put his popularity well above Hillary Clinton’s, an aide later said Kerry “misspoke.” And it isn’t just male politicians who parse words this way. In the course of writing The Dance of Deception, Harriet Lerner asked women friends what lies they’d recently told. This request was invariably answered with silence. When Lerner asked the same friends for examples of “pretending,” they had no problem complying. “I pretended to be out when my friend called,” said one without hesitation.
A direct admission of lying is rare to nonexistent. (“I lied.”) Those willing to make such a bold statement cast doubt on anything they have said in the past and anything they will say in the future. This is why, rather than open the floodgates and accept lying as a way of life, we manipulate notions of truth. We “massage” truthfulness, we “sweeten it,” we tell “the truth improved.” Britain’s Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong once created an uproar with his droll admission that he’d been “economical with the truth” (a phrase he borrowed from Edmund Burke). Since then, all manner of creative phrase-making has been devoted to explaining why lies are something else altogether. My favorite depicts a liar as “someone for whom truth is temporarily unavailable.”
When Trump: The Art of the Deal was published, Donald Trump claimed that 200,000 copies had been printed, that The Today Show planned to interview him five times, and that the issue of New York magazine with an excerpt of his book was its biggest seller ever. In fact, 150,000 copies of Trump were printed, Today interviewed him twice, and New York’s sales figures were not available at the time he made his claims. In his book, Trump called this kind of braggadocio “truthful hyperbole.” After The Apprentice became a hit, Trump claimed his television show was the season’s ratings leader (when it was actually #7) and said he was America’s highest-paid television personality. A Fortune reporter who debunked these claims, and many others, concluded that Trump’s boasts about himself were, at best, “loosely truth-based.”
Dishonesty inspires more euphemisms than copulation or defecation. This helps desensitize us to its implications. In the post-truth era we don’t just have truth and lies, but a third category of ambiguous statements that are not exactly the truth but fall short of a lie. Enhanced truth it might be called. Neo-truth. Soft truth. Faux truth. Truth lite. Through such aggressive euphemasia we take the sting out of telling lies. Euphemasia calls up remarkable powers of linguistic creativity. In addition to golden oldies such as “credibility gap,” “re-framing,” and Winston Churchill’s “terminological inexactitudes,” consider the following examples of post-truthful euphemisms:
enrich the truth
enhance the truth
embroider the truth
massage the truth
tamper with the truth
tell more than the truth
bend the truth
soften the truth
shade the truth
shave the truth
stretch the truth
stray from the truth
withhold the truth
tell the truth improved
present the truth in a favorable perspective
make things clearer than the truth
be lenient with honesty
Eventually euphemisms themselves develop connotations and spawn progeny. As an executive tells employees in a New Yorker cartoon: “I’m not spinning – I’m contextualizing.”