Parenting  •  August 1, 2010

Lying Makes a Better World

At 3 years of age, we don’t yet know how to lie or what a lie is. So, “Kids say the darndest things.” It’s remarkable to see how consistently kids deal with truths. If you ask them how you look, they might say, “You look really fat.” They are not yet capable of predicting the emotional consequences of their statements, so everything comes out uncensored. As they grow older, they become aware of the fact that other people have feelings too, and this consideration takes a priority over being honest or truthful. In other words, they become capable of empathy. If so, why do we tell our kids to “always tell the truth”, and scold them for lying when we ourselves lie left and right?

One of the earliest philosophical questions Ludwig Wittgenstein asked himself as a little boy is: “Why should one tell the truth if it’s to one’s advantage to tell a lie?” This is a profound question that he spent his entire life answering. I’m not sure if he found an answer to it. Why do we think of “truth” as an unquestionable virtue when we in fact lie casually every day without even noticing? When someone gives you a gift, you would say, “Thank you; I love it!” even if you hated it. A common reaction to such an example is: “That’s not lying.” In the book NurtureShock, the authors observe the following:

They [parents] almost cheer when the child comes up with the white lie. “Often the parents are proud that their kids are ‘polite’—they don’t see it as lying,” Talwar [Dr. Victoria Talwar] remarked. Despite the number of times she’s seen it happen, she’s regularly amazed at parents’ apparent inability to recognize that a white lie is still a lie.

To children, all lies look the same. Whether grownups categorize them “white” or not has no relevance to them. This should be obvious to adults, but shockingly it is not. When a lie is told in order to protect someone’s feelings, adults somehow think it is fundamentally different from lying. Like most things in life, lying and being honest are not matters of black and white but shades of grey. For every response, you could fabricate a complete lie or be uncompromisingly honest. Or, like most people do, find the middle ground, which includes not saying anything, or saying something that doesn’t really mean anything (empty response, as opposed to lacking response). Not saying anything has a dual purpose. It allows you to be somewhat sensitive to the feelings of others and at the same time allows you to technically avoid “lying”. In other words, it’s a defense mechanism. You do not want to hurt the feelings of the other, but at the same time you do not want to feel bad about lying; so you are protecting both parties evenly. We modify our position on this spectrum of lie and honesty depending on the context. Given this is what we grownups do all the time, the common preaching to kids, “always tell the truth,” is not only confusing to kids but hypocritical.

Furthermore, when adults say, “always tell the truth”, they mean things they want to hear. If their kids say, “I hate your gift”, somehow this moral imperative does not apply. They conveniently categorize exceptions as being “polite”. If there are so many exceptions to the “truth”, then why pound into their heads this idea that lying is bad? Obviously, lying is just a tool or a skill of communication. Just like a computer, it can be used positively or negatively.

Parents telling their kids “Always tell the truth” has a selfish motive too. Given the choice between letting their kids learn something important on their own and having to worry about them getting hurt or dying, many parents choose to avoid the potential fear, and they deceive themselves into thinking that this is an expression of love for them, when in fact they are just taking the easy road for themselves. This is the hidden motive behind “always tell the truth”. They cannot take the fear of not knowing, and they need to make sure that their genes are successfully passed onto the next generation. What’s ultimately good for their kids becomes secondary to these selfish concerns. So, naturally, they would want their kids to tell the truth to them. But, conveniently, when the kids are all grown up, and they are angry about how they were treated as kids by their parents, the parents are suddenly not willing to listen to the “truth”. “Always tell the truth” no longer holds true. They go into denial. They don’t want to admit that they ever did anything wrong to their kids.

So, let’s not fool ourselves. Lying as a social skill is not good or bad in and of itself. We should not be telling our kids to always tell the truth. I’m happy that my 5 year old daughter can lie. I wish I was a better liar myself. To use lying appropriately, we have to be able to predict what the truth would do to the other person’s feelings. And, based on that prediction, we would have to artfully figure out the appropriate response. This is a sophisticated social skill. Most 3-year-olds are not capable of such a feat. Depending on the situation, lying is the right response (e.g “Thank you, I love your gift”) while other times, you may be able to get away with not saying anything. The last thing you would want to do is to tell the truth consistently, or you would be deemed “socially retarded”.

Truth is disruptive, hurtful, and damaging in many cases. We all learn to lie appropriately, and that’s how this society functions smoothly. Lies are the lubricant of social interactions. Without them, every social interaction would be unnecessarily abrasive. Lying is an important skill for us to master.

When asked how someone looks, we might respond by saying “You look great” instead of “You look fat”. We categorize the former as a “white lie” and see it as an appropriate response. When I was growing up in Japan, being fat was considered a charming (or even respectable) trait partly because the images of Buddha were always fat. Fat people were thought of as happy people. So, saying “You are fat” posed no problem. So, whether a statement is a “white lie” or just a “lie” depends largely on the context in which it is used. The same “truth” can be hurtful to one person/culture while it can be appreciated by another person/culture.

The reason why we unconsciously build a roster of exceptions to “lies” is because we become more self-deceptive as we grow older. That is, we become very good at not only lying to others but lying to ourselves. People who can lie to themselves are the master liars because they are convinced that they are telling the truth even when they are lying. So their lies are powerfully convincing to others. In the study conducted by Dr. Talwar, the parents are deceiving themselves when they see their kids as acting “polite” when in fact they are lying. Their self-deception is so complete that they don’t even notice the inconsistency of their own behavior, but the kids have no such self-deception, so they are just confused by the inconsistent messages that their parents are sending.

What goes on in the confines of a family home plays out on a national scale in politics. The only difference is the size. The social strategies we use individually to others around us have the same effects between groups of people. If telling the truth to your friends is hurtful and disruptive, it would be the same when you do it as a politician. As we see over and over, nothing gets done in politics if the cause has no emotional momentum. Politics is indeed about controlling and manipulating people’s emotions. Logic doesn’t motivate people into action. This is not a world of Vulcans. In fact, Vulcans would know it’s pointless to appeal to the human capacity to reason. They wouldn’t even try (if they were indeed a creature of logic). Only those who are irrationally motivated by their own emotions would advocate truth and transparency as the ultimate tools for bettering the world, because they don’t fully understand the nature and the effect of “truth”. Since they do not understand “truth”, they romanticize it as something greater than themselves. Truth is always overrated by those who don’t understand it.

If you really wanted to know what it is like to live in a world of truth and honesty, you can start by being consistently truthful to everyone around you. After all, even politicians have to start from their own immediate circles of friends. People often advocate honesty and transparency when it comes to politics but conveniently disregard those values when they deal with people they know personally. This is a cop-out. This just means that they are not willing to risk anything personally, but they expect the politicians to adhere to their noble values. (A pure case of projection.) They don’t want to subject their friends to painful truths, but they don’t have the same consideration when it comes to strangers. This is the same attitude that causes wars between nations.

Being consistently truthful is not something most people would want even if they claim to. I would dare such people to entirely disregard people’s feelings and be consistent in telling the truth in every situation to everyone around them just like preschool kids and Vulcans do. They would make no friends but enemies.

The key to success in life is to treat everyone inconsistently. (Yes, I mean in-consistently.) If you are talking to someone who has a high tolerance for truth, by all means, tell the truth. If you are dealing with someone who is barely managing to have a functional self-image, don’t push it. Tell him what he wants to hear. The truth would be wasted on him anyway, and you would just make an enemy out of him. Your job in life is not to teach everyone a lesson.

As steadfastly committed to truth as Wittgenstein was, I’m not sure if it served him well. His life seems like a series of self-inflicted tortures. My sense is that he actually had no choice, even though he knew deep down lying is more advantageous to his well being (and to the well being of the world). He was compelled to tell the truth; he could not resist. (An important quality in any great artist.) In this sense, I feel that the biography of Wittgenstein written by Ray Monk is very appropriately titled: “The Duty of Genius”. He acted as if it weren’t up to him to decide what to do with his own life. It was a “duty” assigned by the forces outside of himself. For the rest of us who are fortunate enough not to have that duty, we should stick to lying. Let’s not fool ourselves: We are not capable of handling the truth. If we tried, we would destroy each other in no time.