The Way We Lie
“In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
― George Orwell
Recently I said of a politician I saw on TV, “wow, he looks tired and old”. A wiser man sitting nearby responded by saying, “it’s exhausting to carry around all those lies”. I was taken by that profound observation for days. And in the midst of wondering why politicians practice duplicity as a primary strategy for getting ahead, I started wondering why we all do the same thing.
Political debates, job interviews, social gatherings, and first dates are the same: those who know how to say the right words, wear the right clothes, align themselves with the right networks, and play the right angles often get ahead. In the end, putting on a good face is a rewarding venture. So, if we’re not careful, we can spend our lives competing for the votes of our ‘constituents’ by saying whatever they want to hear and trying to be whoever they wish we were.
This presents a big problem down the road that we have seen arise over and over again. When we choose people whose primary gift is knowing how to play ‘the game’ well, we end up with people in positions that should have never been there in the first place – whether in terms of character or competence. We often fall in love with the best actors, place them in the most prominent positions, and then act surprised when they fail to live up to the standard they set for themselves. People are always flawed, so it should always raise a red flag when you see someone trying hard to market themselves as someone who is not. This is why political races at the highest level are destined to get us a person in office that probably shouldn’t be there. In the end, no one truly wins in the game of politics.
We’re not all politicians, but we have all been tempted to suppress our true positions in order to gain the approval of the people listening to us. In fact, it’s uncommon to find someone that truly calls it like they see it. And while most people I know would much rather hear someone speak with a raw and unrefined authenticity than with a set of polished talking points, we all struggle to be those people. I love it when I meet those people though, because you never have to wonder if there is something they are hiding or leaving out or why they might be. There are all sorts of things behind a mask that are being intentionally covered up – either out of fear, insecurity, shame, or strategy – and it’s nearly impossible to figure out which thing it is.
Adversely, people who speak with candor aren’t concerned with managing people’s perception. Their honest thoughts might not necessarily be ‘truth’, but their candor provides a much quicker and less patronizing way of getting to it than the person with the talking points. Candor puts everyone on the same level playing field, but it is not easy to do. As Dostoyevsky said, “nothing in this world is harder than speaking the truth, nothing easier than flattery”. So, it’s difficult to find an atmosphere where speaking the truth is normal… or even socially acceptable. It’s almost as if we believe posturing to be a necessary part of society. People have actually advised me that as I get older, I will understand why candor and honesty aren’t always the best idea. This thought process was explained well by the 18th century English writer Samuel Johnson, “The young man, who intends no ill, believes that none is intended, and therefore acts with openness and candor: but his father, having suffered the injuries of fraud, is impelled to suspect, and too often allured to practice it.” Thus, deception and fraud act like defense systems that protect us from getting hurt. But relationships predicated on the safety of one or both of the people involved will always remain on the surface. The absence of candor is in itself an indictment on any relationship.
It is a primary strategy of every great authoritarian regime to remove the opportunity for candor and the mediums through which it can be communicated. This has happened in business and government, home and church. But why? Because truth is powerful. It connects with people in a way that deception and pretense never will. People long for it and they know it when they see it; they’ll grab a hold of it and then will lay down their life for it. Truth is the enemy of oppression and complacency. It always brings hope. We should fight for it, first and foremost, in the way we speak and interact with others. So, how often do you tell the truth?
“Truth is a risky proposition. It's the nature of mediocre human beings to believe that lies are necessary, that they serve a purpose, that truth is subversive, that candor is dangerous, that the very scaffold of communal life is supported by lies.” -Anne Rice