Home » People & Culture » Lying


According to author James Stewart, lying is a national crisis.  This undermines “the ideals of fair play, integrity, and trust to which people of goodwill everywhere aspire,” according to the author, and he’s made a good career out of speaking on this topic.  His book “Tangled Webs” is selling well.

But is lying worse than it ever has been, as Steward insists?  I think so, but at a slightly different depth than he has plumbed.

There is little doubt that much of our world is based on lies.  There isn’t an economic stat that doesn’t have a bit of fudge hidden in it somewhere to make the picture look a bit better.  Politicians routinely say things that don’t actually make any sense, such as the famed “Ground Zero Mosque” that was neither at Ground Zero nor a Mosque.  Corporations routinely keep several sets of books, one for the taxman and one for the investment world, showing different definitions of “profit” where one has to be a lie.

But there is more to it than that, I think.

Consider for a moment different kinds of lies that surround us.  There is the directly, objectively false statement that can be shown to be incorrect that Stewart’s book uses as its underpinning, giving examples of Bernie Madoff, Barry Bonds, Martha Stewart, and Scooter Libby.  But these seem quite rare.

Then, there is what we might call BS, or (CowPuckey) as I tried to euphemistically refer to it.  That’s when someone says something that is not a direct lie because it has no relationship with the truth whatsoever.   The speaker doesn’t care if it is true – and only makes the statement because it advances their cause.  It’s pretty easy to spot most of the time because if it sounds too stupid to be true, it probably is.  Michelle Bachmann does this nearly constantly.

But even with the epidemic of (CowPuckey), I don’t think that’s the most corrosive problem yet.  There are many examples of a simple kernal of something definitely, provably true that have been ripped entirely from their context to prove a point that ultimately makes no sense at all.

For example, a lot of people reasonably concerned about government spending have lately been crossing many lines and started insisting that FDR’s New Deal actually made the Great Depression worse, or that Obama has done the same, based on economic performance immediately after the policies were adopted.  No one could reasonably believe that an economy as large as ours turns around in just a few years, but genuinely true data is show outside of that context as proof that those working on the problem are incompetent.

The epidemic of lies has one central problem – a lack of Connection.

The blatant lies are rare because everyone knows they might be checked out at some point.  Most people still value their reputation or at least fear more direct punishment like jail time.  There is still some level of personal responsibility for what we all say and do.

The other kinds of lies, (CowPuckey) and contextual lies, are based on isolation.  A line of BS has, at its core, a lack of personal connection between people that comes from the speaker’s cavalier disregard for the intelligence of their listener.  It is inherently selfish or even narcissistic.  Factoids ripped from context are ideas disconnected from other ideas and provable facts, a more subtle type of disconnection because it is so impersonal.  Want to check it out?  It will take digging to make a case – and often a paragraph to counter a single sentence.

If there is an epidemic of lies, as I think there is, James Stewart hardly scratched the surface of the problem.  His examples are all of people who lied openly and paid a price for their falsehoods.  They are personal problems much more than they are cultural failings.

Lies as we have come to know them are nothing more than a symptom of a social structure that is falling apart, deeply disconnected and wallowing in selfishness.

Some of this is understandable, given the rapid rate of change and inability of most people to maintain a steady control over their own lives.  But no matter what, the only real cure for a culture based on lies is to start understanding its own connections and how nothing actually happens in isolation any longer.

Lying is just one side of a pair of dice that have printed on them many social ills – including failing government, lack of business ethics, broken families, and lack of common courtesy.  Only a loser puts these into the air and think there’s any way they’ll come out ahead.  That lie, one of self-delusion, is another problem altogether.

17 thoughts on “Lying

  1. Wow. You really tied together a lot of what you’ve been talking about for the last few months. Very good article – nothing to add. Thanks!

  2. Thanks, everyone. I’ve been thinking about this ever since I saw the guy on the Daily Show. I just felt there was something missing – a bigger context.

  3. “Cow Puckey.” A great term and so relevant particularly in relation to political discourse.

  4. A good blog but I can’t help but wonder if there’s an excuse in there for plain bad behavior. I’m OK with joining immorality to selfishness but hard times are no excuse for either.

  5. Good piece. Right now I’m working on something about the use of this weekends “Northern Spark” “art” event in Minneapolis to promote and greenwash the HERC garbage incinerator. This, at least partly funded by the Minnesota Start Arts Board, includes plentiful doses of all your categories of lies. Must say, though, that this (“The blatant lies are rare because everyone knows they might be checked out at some point.”) is overly optimistic.

    See this video (http://northernspark.org/projects/waste-not.html?org=partners) of Carl Michaud, Director of Environmental Services for Hennepin County, saying the smokestack emissions of the incinerator are “air.” Is Carl a liar? What do you think? Is he threatened with jail for it? Not hardly….

    What it all amounts to, I’m afraid, is that the very concept of truth has been marginalized into something determined by the client’s checkbook. Al la Bernays (http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Edward_Bernays).

  6. I think your on to something here. I agree with Alan that its optimistic to say that people rarely outright lie. But the other kinds of lie are totally constant anymore. You can’t trust a thing anyone says anymore. And there does have to be a reason for that though I agree you can’t even appear to be making excuses for lying.

  7. Jack: It’s fun to use BS (or CowPuckey) as a technical term, meaning “the speaker doesn’t even care if it’s true or not”. That is politics today, yes.

    Jim: I don’t mean to make excuses for bad behavior. I think every anti-social thing I described is pretty lousy – lying is just part of it. Better? 🙂

    Alan: Maybe I’m optimistic, but I do think that people are usually “clever” (note quotes). For example, calling emissions “air” is … not correct but close to correct if you take ‘air’ to mean ‘gas’. But it’s still a lie because it’s clearly meant to deceive, even if we were generous about technicalities. He still should damned well be ashamed of himself – but I’m guessing he’s not. Yes, it is all a matter of checkbook – grabbing what you can. That’s why I say the root is just selfishness.

    We’ve built a society on anti-social behavior. That’s why I say we either have to retrace our steps or sit down and wait for death as a culture. There is no way forward here.

    Dale: I’ll be as clear as possible – all of this is really sh*tty behavior that needs to be called out. There is no excuse for the selfishness that’s come to define our world. That includes lying, lack of compassion, and rudeness. I’m doing my best to set an example here as I can.

  8. I agree on the” … society built on anti-social behavior.” This captures it well.

    Perhaps the “lying” is not always so much a matter of action as inaction. Lying by exclusion or omission. Ie, what the strib or MPR don’t report ….

    Or, say, when they report statements of anonymous “officials” saying there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq…. Or what Bachmann says about anything. If I, as a reporter, systematically report the statements of known or presumptive liars, in a manner that accords them credibility, am I culpable? The five or so layers of “editors” and publishers?

    I’m suggesting for the sake of argument that we’ve dispersed and diffused the responsibility for our lies. And that may be why Michaud probably feels no guilt for seeking to deceive the public about his incinerator.

    Where does the buck stop (pun intended)? It’s got to stop somewhere if we are to improve the quality of our discourse.

  9. Alan: I like the “lying by inaction” concept. What we leave out is often very telling – it’s what makes the lack of context type of lie work. Given how little people know about history it’s one that’s easy to pull off, too. Heck, it’s not even a matter of knowing history as having a generally agreed upon version of it, right or wrong, that can provide context. And there are many examples where history doesn’t even come into it.

    Repeating and/or going after known liars definitely gives them a credence they do not deserve. I am very sure that the Left made Michelle Bachmann, for example, by constantly attacking her. Much of this is tied up in how you attack them, however – I think that more ridicule and less sanctimony and outrage would have limited her appeal. But my fave saying remains that Bachmann is a fairy – if everyone ignored her, she would become invisible.

    I’m still thinking about personal responsibility and lying. Granted, a truly moral person would not lie just because they would feel terrible for it, but I think there is more. We’ve reached a point where honest people appear to be left behind socially and economically, which is a lot of pressure to be on the “take” like everyone else. I dunno yet.

  10. Erik:

    My thoughts on the Bachmann phenomenon are similar. She’s featured regularly, say, by the good folks at the Daily Planet. Much of the copy is calm and objective–“she said this but the truth is that.” Some is ridicule.

    But wouldn’t it do us a lot more good to just ignore her–insofar as this is possible–and go report on some of the good stuff being done by Minnesota’s remaining sane congresscritters. Betty McCollum for instance.

    The good, constructive, officeholders are being taken down one-by-one, while we focus our attention on the misdeeds of the cranks replacing them.

  11. Alan, that is what I keep saying. We need to focus on people who are doing good things because there are many. It is far too easy to fault the other side for what they do wrong and both sides do this. We have to focus on people who are trying to both balance the budget and get us out of the depression in both parties. I know there are many out there.

  12. Great analysis of our times, and excellent observations by all. I didn’t see the post excusing bad behavior in any way, but perhaps I misunderstood Jim’s statement. I also agree with Alan that the blatant lies are more prevalent than we wish to think, but if I may try to step into Erik’s thought process for a moment I don’t believe that he negates that thought…I think he is simply addressing the most outrageous of the blatant lies.

    My father was a corporate litigator for a couple of multinational corporations for most of his working career, and I can tell you that I became very disillusioned regarding big money as I grew older. For example, there have been several cases from the seventies with which my father was fully familiar that have only recently come to trial. One of the cases bankrupted one of his former employers, which is why, of course, they wanted to keep what they knew in the seventies hidden. The travesty is not the bankruptcy of the company, which of course is still operating, but the loss of life and quality of life of the people who were affected by the secrets and lies from that corporation.

    My point in this is that my father is not a bad man; in fact, in most respects he was a stellar role model and someone whom I have tried to emulate in many ways. That said, I believe that he is not proud of some of the secrets he *had* to keep out of fiduciary responsibility to his employers and personal responsibility to ensure that his family had food on the table.

    In his defense I will offer that he left the two employers with the most egregious violations as the lack of conscience of his superiors sickened him. Even so, he had to remain silent, lest he be brought to complete ruin by these former employers as has happened to “whistle-blowers” who were bound by attorney-client privilege, as was he.

    Call me a cynic but this is what I believe regarding why so many lies are perpetrated, and why I believe we will sink further before any change occurs: The super-elite (which includes almost all CEO’s of major corporations) are completely out of touch with reality. Many of these CEO’s have at best narcissistic personalities, and at worst, psychopathic personalities. They are driven by their greed and well rewarded for it. If they are billionaires, they can likely buy their way out of most trouble. They have no regard for anyone else. The extension of this is that the comfortable (those like my father) have mortgages and mouths to feed and are persuaded by their own level of comfort and desire to provide for their own that they are “beholden” (in debt to) the employer and must do what is right for the employer at nearly all costs. Those who have been around for any length of time know what happens to those who rock the boat: if it sinks, they will go down with it! Most reasonable people will not risk their own personal ruin.

    What will bring about change? The continued practice of the elite and out of touch of ensuring their needs are met by taking away the comfort of others. When the comfortable class ceases to exist, and it *will* cease to exist if current policy continues, the elite will face a rebellion the likes of which hasn’t been seen in the Western World for nearly a century. Let’s hope I’m just a pessimist and that it never comes to that end.

  13. Not sure what to say at this point, I’ll revisit this in a bit. I have an idea for tomorrow to flip this on its head and say something more positive – making two posts that I hope separate like oil and water.

  14. Pingback: Little Things | Barataria – The work of Erik Hare

  15. Kevin: I’ve been thinking about what you had to say a lot, it really affected me. Some day I may tell about the things my Dad did and what we’ve talked about since then. Nothing serious, but we had our disagreements. It really does shape our view of the world as kids.

    But I do agree that those at the top of the structure we have rather universally exhibit psychopathic personalities rather often. The power and money has clearly corrupted them, and the path to the top seems to weed out people who are decent – or corrupt them into more psychopaths. It has to change, it must.

    What can we do about it? I want to concentrate on that for a while because we have to all do something – no matter how small. And, as usual, I think that small is where it has to start. We’re all human and we all make mistakes. A structure that does not encourage basic human decency is a structure that simply has to be replaced, IMHO.

    It may come to open rebellion one day. I think we have an open enough society that it won’t go that far, but I’m ready for it if necessary. In the meantime, I think what we can do is to set the best example in our daily lives that we possibly can and start to reject all forms of “big” that encourage shitty behavior. That, and vote for anyone who shares these values when it comes time – regardless of political party.

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