LIAR, LIAR, PANTS ON FIRE
August 14, 2009
It may well be that “the devil is the father of lies,” but in the words of Josh Billings, “he neglected to patent the idea, and the business now suffers from competition.” Whereas in years past the lesson of Pinocchio spoke volumes to children who feared being found in falsity, deception by design has become today what Edmund Burke describes as “a perennial spring.”
Case in point: In the 1998 movie LIAR, LIAR Jim Carrey portrayed an attorney whose son wishes that he would stop his habitually lying. When the boy’s wish comes true, the “perennial spring” of lies dries up; but havoc ensues. Fact is attorneys are not lone liars. Politicians, students, business partners, mates, lovers, junkies, employees, employers, polygamists, attorneys, retailers, religious opportunists, masters of espionage, scam artists and crooks are honing to perfection the art of deception.
With hardly a bat of the eye, spouses lie to assuage their mates, and kids lie to escape discipline. Lawyers lie to whitewash clients, and criminals lie to escape justice. Speeders lie to avert tickets, and politicians lie to win elections. Parishioners lie to escape duty, and ministers lie to appear holy.
Falsehood: Its Twists and Turns
In the biblical sense, morality speaks to sexual chastity, honor, integrity and truthfulness. Granted, some falsehoods (oral or written) are unintentional—e.g., a misspoken word. On the other hand, some exploitatively promote self-interest. There’s the “little white lie” and out-and-out falsehood, birthed from whom the Bible characterizes as the “Father of Lies, a murderer from the beginning.”
Lies can be active (speaking untruth) or passive (failing to disclose full truth). They introduce logical contradictions or specious fallacies. If for entertainment purposes alone, some folks intentionally exaggerate or mislead. Others go beyond cleverness and trickery to defraud, unfairly discriminate or counterfeit.
The R-rated Imperative
So prevalent is the practice of falsehood that onlookers everywhere snickered when some years back the leader of the free world was caught in a tangled web of lies with respect to his sexual immorality. Many, if not most dismissed as inconsequential the memorable finger-in-the-face, bald-faced lie planted on them. The subject matter alone demands deception, they reasoned.
Moralists disagree; however, before mounting the proverbial high horse, these do well to recall that indicting an administration on the basis of lies, shredded documents, moral impropriety, abused power, laundered money, obstructed justice and the like is tricky business.
New York Times bestselling author Edward Klein described a standard, five-fold strategy employed within the White House: lie, deny, parse, stonewall and then go on the offense. We’ve all seen it in action—if truth be told, on both sides of the aisle. For every so-called liberal at fault, there is a conservative or moderate equally ensnared in wrong doing—and visa versa, of course.
So, then, who’s to say?
Though the prevailing secular worldview elevates no moral code as superior over another, it’s downright trendy to single out and then castigate traditional morality for applying a “spurious moral compass.” This, of course, begs the question: How then is any moral distinction right or wrong if all are deemed spurious?
Consider Michael Galster. He threatened to expose a Health Management Association within the Arkansas penal system for harvesting from inmates blood that was tainted with hepatitis C and the HIV virus. Allegedly with full knowledge of prison authorities, the blood was shipped to several foreign countries, Canada included.
It is no accident, observes Dr. Rossiter, “that the greatest political system in human history was founded by devout Christians on the assumption that its citizens would live by Judeo-Christian ideals”—i.e., the Golden Rule—but there appears to be a new sheriff in town whose mandate is to leave no good deed unpunished!
For recipients of the contaminated blood and their loved ones, Galster’s moral distinction was far from spurious. What he wouldn’t want done to himself or his loved ones, he refused to do to others. For Galster’s truthfulness, however, he received no kudos, no pats on the back. Instead, he was fired and denied renewal of his orthopedic contract in the Cummins State Prison.
Given the Lord’s very essence as “the Truth,” He hates “a lying tongue.” Even so, to protect their child from a murderous king, the loving parents of Moses engaged in a clear act of deception when, for three months, they hid him. In the end, an entire nation escaped bondage because of it!
Yet another deceiver, Rahab hid spies sent by Joshua prior to the siege of Jericho, thus earning her a spot in the biblical Hall-of-Fame. In both cases, morality is rightly relative to the situation and even opportunistic, though not in unscrupulous or unprincipled ways.
The ancient Greek tragedian, Sophocles, conceded that lying is not honorable; but “speaking dishonorably is pardonable when the truth entails tremendous ruin.” For example, if a knife-toting rapist-pedophile crashed into my home demanding access to my 12-year-old daughter, I would suffer no guilt for deliberately misdirecting him with a lie. Nor should a soldier suffer shame for withholding military intelligence from enemy interrogators whose intent is to inflict widespread harm.
On a lighter level, should a wife ask if her pants make her look fat, the husband does well to think twice before he answers! Most agree that a creative response is in order—e.g., “Honey, you look great to me no matter what you wear.” While arguably situational, relative and opportunistic, the response is true enough; and no one gets hurt by it.
A Nation of Liars
A leading public educator and founding father, Noah Webster recognized Christian faith as foundation for our nation’s public life—this, for good reason. Alongside divine enablement, “human instincts can be controlled only where the constraints of individual conscience are adequate, cultural morality supports their control and society’s laws deter their criminal expression” (Lyle H. Rossiter, Jr., M.D., The Liberal Mind).
As a former first-grade teacher, later an administrator, I read this to mean that love of truth can and should be nurtured by carefully designed and well-communicated rules. When reasonable rules are enforced with kindness and consistency, classmates enjoy the good fruit of an emotionally safe and stable setting. Consequently, students naturally are drawn to truth, the love for which is nourished by experience and nurtured by good example.
For some, this description conjures up the unpleasant visual of a stern, spinster schoolmarm whose weapon in hand is a solid, stiff ruler poised to crack knuckles. This, of course, is far from the ideal, as is the permissive model that indulges carelessness. After all, when carelessness is given full reign, a culture rots from within. Samuel Johnson reminds us that “it is more from carelessness about truth than from intentionally lying that there is so much falsehood in the world.”
Through the revolving door of evolving values, childlike immoderation typically trumps mature moral moderation. Accordingly, today’s Olympic-class consumers all too often indulge in what they cannot afford—even if they have to beg, whine, steal, borrow or lie to get what they want. The perpetual child is “worth it” after all; and convenience, comfort and emotion drive the childlike masses.
Lying today is big business. On the heels of indulgence come web sites that provide tips for how to beat a polygraph or fabricate an alibi. A new survey by CareerBuilder.com reveals that over half of hiring managers admit to having caught a lie on a candidate’s application for employment (but just five percent of workers admit to fibbing on their résumés).
This Dot-Com’s vice president of human resources, Rosemary Haefner observes rightly that “catching a lie on a résumé raises a red flag about a candidate’s overall ethics.” The same holds true for students who plagiarize assignments. Crediting self for another’s efforts likewise introduces the leaven of deception. Not only is the offending student robbed of an important educational experience, but he also grasps credit from another whose time, effort and genius warrant due recognition.
Abraham Lincoln once noted, “What is morally wrong can never be politically right.” However, in the contemporary view of things, Lincoln’s maxim is perceived as archaic, old-fashioned and out of touch. Take, for example, the partisan tradition of mud-slinging. The political volley of name-calling not only hits below the belt; this contemporary practice serves also to uncover a culture gone awry.
To characterize all liberals as godless, bleeding-heart, pinko-communists and conservatives as intolerant, extremist right-wing ignoramuses hardly flatters the American ideal of one nation, indivisible under God, and offering liberty and justice to all.
A Little Leaven Leavens the Lump
By definition, leaven is an agent that causes a cook’s batter to rise when baked. By means of fermentation, leaven (yeast) gradually modifies and expands the dough. Metaphorically, leaven symbolizes sin or false doctrine. When mixed with the doctrine of God, a little leaven corrupts largely. Jesus shared the Parable of the Leaven to show how something small becomes something big.
The biblical principle finds expression in Lithuanian poet Czeslaw Milosz’s depiction of a tree of falsehood, grown from a small grain of truth. To “let one’s lie be even more logical than the truth itself” may well attract the weary traveler to find repose in it. Nonetheless, Lenin warned that “a lie told often enough becomes the truth” when bereft of a “grand meta-narrative” (big picture).
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Bypassing accountability to God, self-serving “truth” morphs into nothing more than a social or personal construction; and reality dissolves into paltry bits and pieces. Societal permissiveness and partisan politics surely contribute, but America’s ills stem more from absence of the love of truth, lack of which is certain to yield what the Bible fingers as “unfruitful works of darkness.”
In the end, everyone pays for lies; and no one is the better for them.