Sunday, August 30, 2009

Reversing Course from a Culture of Lies

I read an article in Newsweek a few days ago that talks about lying and the role that lying plays particularly as regards success in our society. As I doubt will come as much of shock to those of you reading this, those who lie frequently and lie well are often much more socially and economically successful than those who do not. As a Quaker, this story deeply moved me, especially since we are called to adhere to a Testimony of Integrity whereby lying, being deceitful, and keeping dishonest practices are a violation of our teachings. Though we often are reluctant to place too much emphasis words like "sin", skirting the truth and in so doing resorting to unfair advantage might as well be one. The problem is that lying is so omnipresent in the world around us and so unthinkingly incorporated into our daily lives that it's a tremendous challenge for each of us.

We don't swear oaths because oaths are designed to reinforce and provide a consequence (such a perjury, in a court of law) for people who would otherwise be inclined to prevaricate. Since we're supposed to tell the truth no matter what, we see oaths as unnecessary. Yet, I will openly admit that I lie from time to time myself, and more often than I'd like to contemplate.

We are a culture of liars, to put it bluntly, with deceit so deeply ingrained in our psyches that we hardly even notice we're engaging in it. Spam e-mail, deceptive advertising, the everyday pleasantries we don't really mean—"It's so great to meet you!" "I love that dress"—have, as Feldman puts it, become "an omnipresent white noise we've learned to tune out."

The reason that our name got co-opted by companies selling food and motor oil, to state only the most recognizable examples, is that Quakers were known to be trustworthy and known to charge a fair price. Assigning the Quaker name to any product was meant to make the consumer feel as though they could trust that the product they were buying was presented completely as advertised and was affordably priced. The tactic must have worked well, because both of those companies are still in business. Even now we get annoyed when yet another enterprising businessperson believes that anything with our name attached can be reliably marketed and sold at a profit.

As Americans, we like to think we value the truth. Time and time again, public-opinion polls show that honesty is among the top five characteristics we want in a leader, friend, or lover; the world is full of woeful stories about the tragic consequences of betrayal. At the same time, deception is all around us. We are lied to by government officials and public figures to a disturbing degree; many of our social relationships are based on little white lies we tell each other. We deceive our children, only to be deceived by them in return. And the average person, says psychologist Robert Feldman, the author of a new book on lying, tells at least three lies in the first 10 minutes of a conversation.

So it would seem that we're all two-faced to some degree. One can lament this or chalk it up to human nature. I lie, I ask for forgiveness, I resolve to do better next time. So long as I am aware that I frequently fall short of the lofty ideals I champion, I never worry that I am becoming the very thing I say I don't want to be. We're flawed, we're human, and we're culpable towards hypocrisy.

A Leonard Cohen song, "Anthem", comes to mind, partially because because it refers to "the light", which I interpret to mean the Inward Light of God.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

I'm also reminded of a poem a fellow Friend frequently invokes when matters such as these come up at meeting. The author, W.H. Auden, titled the work "As I Walked Out One Evening" and what begins as a relatively straightforward narrative turns towards the philosophical by the end. Auden notes,

O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.

'O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.'

The prophet Mohammad was asked by a follower, "Who should I consider to be my neighbor?" Mohammad responded, "Count five houses in every direction from you." The context must also be noted, since in Mohammad's time the planet was much more sparsely populated and the physical distance between each house was much greater than it is today.

This mirrors what Jesus had said earlier,

Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

Perhaps we ought to examine the reason why we feel compelled to lie in the first place. Is it taking the path of least resistance? Is it out of a desire to further ourselves at someone else's expense? Is it out of a desire to seem more important or more powerful than we actually are? We always have worth before God and if we could translate the value that God sees in us to the value we have within ourselves, then who knows what we could accomplish for good. When so many of our problems are caused because we undercut ourselves as we are and believe we ought to be something else, perhaps the first lie we need to cease altogether is the lie we tell ourselves.

No comments: