I wonder if any of us can honestly say we have never told a lie. I certainly can’t! Some say that lying is an unavoidable part of human nature, but does this make telling a lie acceptable, excusable and always forgivable?
My first lessons about lying and truth-telling came in childhood with the folktale of George Washington and the cherry tree, along with his famous declaration “I cannot tell a lie.” Then there was the story of Pinocchio with his nose growing with each lie he told. As a young child, I can still remember carefully examining my nose in the mirror after I spoke an “untruth” or in some cases, when there were truths I didn’t admit.
Much has been written on the subject of lying, and there are many viewpoints on the ethics and impact of lying. Some believe that lying is always wrong. And yet these same folks often add — unless there is a good reason for it. This addendum seems to concede that lying is not always wrong!
There are various types of lies, or so they say, as well as a variety of motives for telling them. But one simple definition for a lie is “a false statement deliberately presented as being true meant to deceive or give a wrong impression.”
Of course, there may be times when lying is useful, practical and even necessary. This could be when someone is under serious threat from an enemy.
I suspect “white lies” are the ones that most of us would own up to. Who hasn’t told a friend we loved her new haircut, when we really thought it looked hideous? Or who hasn’t told their mom that her gift was just what they always wanted, when they didn’t mean it?
In these instances whether a lie was told or the truth was omitted, the purpose was to protect someone’s feelings. But sometimes people tell “fibs” to get out of trouble or get what they want.
There have been times when I wanted to avoid an argument and thought it better to leave out a few details. And there have been many more times when I actually hid my shopping bags from my husband to conceal the truth out of a desire to avoid confrontation or a belabored explanation.
So I wasn’t surprised when I read that another reason people tell lies is to protect themselves or to avoid punishment. Other motivations for lying include trying to look good socially and gain politically. So I guess I shouldn’t be so shocked to hear a politician trying to downplay a lie he told as “misplaced words.”
Other words for a “lie” include telling a whopper, a falsity or falsehood, a fabrication or a misrepresentation. And when someone lies under oath, we call it perjury.
Regardless of the preferred word choice, I suspect all lies are not without consequence. And some can result in bad and even deadly consequences. Consider the implications behind Adolf Hitler’s famous words about lying: “Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.”
If we all agree that there are times when lying isn’t so bad, I think we must also agree that lying can be harmful.
One of the destructive effects is that lying diminishes trust. And lying can make informed decisions difficult. In fact, lying can result in a decision that would not have otherwise been made.
This may be why some philosophers say lying is bad because language is essential to societies and therefore carries the obligation to use it truthfully. Some warn that lying can become a generally accepted practice and that it can become hard for people to trust each other or to trust the institutions of society.
And some warn that lying can cause social cohesion to be weakened and conclude that society collapses when no one is able to believe anyone else.
I don’t know about you, my friends, but I am one of those wary members of society who doesn’t assume everything I hear or read is truthful. But lately, I’m taking a hard look at myself and scrutinizing the times when I’m tempted to hide or alter the truth. Why am I ever inclined to hide my purchases from my husband, for example? Have I allowed lying to become an accepted practice in my own life?
Perhaps it’s time we listen to the Psalmist who wrote, “Let the lying lips be put to silence” (Psalms 31:18) and consider how our relationships, schools, businesses and society at large can be improved and benefitted by speaking and publishing the truth. At least I am beginning to ask myself, “Why lie?”
Annette Bridges is a freelance writer who lives on a north Texas ranch with her husband, John. First published by the Dallas Morning News after becoming an empty nester when her daughter left for college in 2001, she has since written weekly columns for numerous Web sites, newspapers and magazines. Visit her Web site at www.annettebridges.com, or and send her an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Want to “Soundoff” on this column? E-mail: email@example.com