Now you’re standing there tongue tied
You’d better learn your lesson well
Hide what you have to hide
And tell what you have to tell
You’ll see your problems multiplied
If you continually decide
To faithfully pursue
The policy of truth
– Depeche Mode, “Policy of Truth”
Anyone who knows me well knows that I grew up in a Pentacostal household. Unfortunately, the many hours that I spent in church, listening to preachers yell until they were hoarse and watching otherwise sober-looking women launch into full-body convulsions, failed to produce any long term religious fervor in me (my God-shaped hole is HUGE), but I did learn a thing or two about morality.
One of the biggest lessons I gleaned was that a lie, whether an omission of an uncomfortable fact or an outright prevarication, was a bad thing. My grandmother used to always say, “There are two types of people I can’t stand—a liar and a thief.” I’ve come to understand that her equal distaste for those social pariahs proceeds from the fact that one simply can’t trust either of them. And without trust, well, you have no way of establishing a relationship that any well-adjusted human would call healthy. I went through life letting that precept shape my discourse with others…usually.
That I employed the word “usually” above should be a big hint that my perspective on truth-telling did became more sophisticated over time. For example, I grasped fairly early on that there were occasions when avoiding the truth was actually one’s moral duty. Case in point: if you’re living in Amsterdam in 1944 and a man with a funny cross on his arm asks you if you’re hiding Jews in the attic, and you are, you should politely reply in the negative. That’s extreme, I know. “Do I look fat in this dress” is a more common, yet equally life-threatening example. The point is, sometimes you have to lie for the sake of the greater good or to spare a person from unnecessary hurt.
What has shocked me is just how broadly many people’s concepts of “appropriate” and “obligated” lying reach. I’ve been personally admonished for being too honest with women early in my relationships. On one occasion, a female friend actually asked me if I was purposefully trying to sabotage my efforts with one lady, all because I acknowledged that I still cared for a past girlfriend. This was in spite of the fact that my other words and actions clearly showed that these emotional remnants weren’t a hindrance to our romantic progress. In another instance, a friend recently complained to me that it was commonplace for folks in his company to willfully mislead potential clients about the readiness of product features. The argument was that if the deals went through, they’d just “find a way to make it happen.” WTF?!
As I see it, the problem with this expanded notion of the appropriate lie is that it can distort the fabric of our relationships. We get locked in a kind of arms race, with lies as the weapons of mutually assured destruction. We begin to lose trust in everyone, all the time, and in turn we start to feel increased personal pressure to hide the truth. Taken to its extreme, I posit that we slowly lose our ability to even distinguish the valid from the invalid. We could be staring truth in the face, but because we’ve become so blinded by the darkness of deception, we can no longer discern the difference between it and its twin.
Perhaps that’s just the way the world turns, and I should just get with the Depeche Mode program. (God knows they were on point with “Personal Jesus”.) All I know is, I’m tired of playing by the rules, only to find out that hardly anyone else does. What’s worse, some even consider me the social deviant for doing it! It seems that yet again, my idealism is costing me…I just hope that I don’t end up morally bankrupt.