Saturday, August 13, 2005

The Etiquette, Protocol and Responsibility of Lying

When William H. Macy's character is accused of lying in the David Mamet comedy, State and Main, he responds, "No, I just have a gift for fiction."

For some, the root of all evil is money; or the love of money. It's my opinion that the root of all human evil stems from our capacity to lie. We cannot look into the hearts and minds of others, and see the truth, so we can rely only on observing other peoples' actions and trusting the veracity of their words.

Sounds like I'm passing myself off as a streetcorner moralist; some smug bastard at the keyboard of his computer pontificating about great Rights and Wrongs. Not at all. I simply want to inspire people to engage in a higher quality of lying.

What makes lying so bad? That it's basically wrong? Should we all strive to be the fictional young George Washington, proclaiming, "I cannot tell a lie..."?

Fuck no. What makes lying bad is bad liars. You see, if you're going to feed someone a line of bullshit, you're taking on more responsibility than you probably realize. I'm not talking about the normal, day to day, bullshit, when our wives ask if a certain skirt makes their butts look big, or if our mother's undercooked meal was all right. Or the crap we say to door-to-door salesmen, telemarketers, census takers, and whatever random strangers we encounter in a given day who are asking something of us. When you lie, you're taking it upon yourself to alter someone's reality. Clearly, if you told the truth about a given situation, the reaction of your audience would be of one stripe, but by telling a lie you are artificially manipulating their response.

For example:

Wife to Husband: "You didn't drink before you drove home last night, did you?"

Husband to Wife: "Of course not!"

Wife's response to this would, in most cases, be markedly different than if the Husband told the truth: "Actually, I was shitfaced. It's a miracle I made it home at all!"

To which she would likely respond: "You prick! I want a divorce!"

I'm referring to the more substantive moments of subterfuge. Here are my personal rules:

(1) I have absolutely no obligation to speak the truth to strangers: Do I have some spare change? No. Am I busy? Yes. Do I have the time? No. Do I have a moment to spare? No. This is not only a rule of lying and self-protection, but of entertainment. I have a great time on the Internet filling out those obligatory surveys we're faced with when trying to access news, say, on the USAToday Web site, or some such thing. Yeah, I'm the female born in 1903 whose zip code is 10001. Fuck you Internet information gatherers!

(2) Know and respect your audience. This, obviously, doesn't include strangers. This includes, spouses, family members, bosses, colleagues, etc.

So, if you're going to take it upon yourself to alter someone's reality, be sure your story can withstand the test of time.

The harm caused by bad liars is multifarious. It's jarring to have your reality altered, and then for it to snap back onto its original track. For instance, a girlfriend/fiancee who broke up with me years ago said her reason was that she was just tired of our relationship. Hardly an ego-boosting reason to hear, but one I had to accept. However, within a few months my altered reality snapped back onto its original track when I inadvertantly learned that she had been cheating on me with some guy she had waiting in the wings. She neither respected her audience, nor did her lie stand the test of time. It was a stop-gap lie, the worst type of subterfuge, though the most popular sort among really bad liars.

I've had recent experience with a bad liar. His fictional name for this example will be "Tony Robbins" (no relation to infomercial Tony Robbins, whom I'm sure has never lied in his life. He's six-foot-ten, why would he ever have to lie?). Last Christmas when my Tony Robbins said he had asked his girlfriend to marry him, my wife offered to make their wedding invitations. My wife is an artist, and did a spectacular job on our wedding invitations years before. Tony Robbins and his new fiancee were delighted and excited and oozing with thanks. However, in the past few days after a number of stop-gap lies burst their rivets, it was learned that my Tony Robbins actually didn't want my wife to make his wedding invitations. Why he didn't just say this in the first place is unknown. As a result, mine and my wife's altered reality snapped back onto its original track this week. Our bad feelings over the situation emanate from the fact that my Tony Robbins didn't respect his audience enough to offer a more weather-proofed lie. He slapped down a .99 cent lie and was satisfied with that.

The interesting experience with my Tony Robbins is that he exposed his own lies, as though to say, "Ha, ha, you believed a .99 cent lie!", communicated in a manner meant to make me feel bad, and make me doubt my own ability to discern fact from fiction. The weird thing is, my Tony Robbins prides himself on being an honest person. So, it's interesting that he would reveal his own poor lying as somehow evidence of fault on my part. Such are the strange ways of bad liars.

So, the moral of good, proficient, long-lasting lying is respect your audience, and don't take lightly the fact that your lie alters someone else's reality, no matter how slightly it might seem.

Look at corporations as examples of horrendously amateurish lying.

General Electric: "We bring good things to light." This quaint tagline is absolutely fermented by the irony of history. General Electric is one of the world's largest weapons makers. The majority of their profits come from things they build and sell that are ultimately used to kill people.

Hewlett-Packard: "Invent." Which is hilariously ironic. I've worked for HP, and was both amused and aghast that the ranks of its decision-making personnel are actually utter techno-phobes. "Out of the box" thinking was always squashed, creative approaches to problem-solving were scorned, and red-tape and bureaucrazy (no spelling mistake there) ruled the day. While the overpaid consultants HP employed were continually "inventing" new ways in which to milk the system and prolong problems they were hired to solve, I don't think that's what HP had in mind with its motto.

Ford: "Quality is Job #1." My family has owned a number of Ford cars over the years, and I have a few friends who work for Fords. Of all the words in the English language that could be applied to Ford, "quality" is not among them. My parents' Ford cars were lemons. I drive a GM simply because it's not a Ford.

ZemhepCo Group: "We love you more than your families do!" This is probably the most reprehensible example of the baldfaced lies that make up corporate advertising. Do you know what ZemhepCo Group's contact email address is? No shit. I guess it was only a matter of time before corporations just vaulted over that emotional line in the sand, proclaiming their "love" for us. Yeah, love for our money.

There are, of course, numerous other examples.

What's the moral of the story about good and bad lying? Don't be a limp dick like my Tony Robbins and pop off .99 cent lies like their department store bubblegum. Bad liars diminish us all. They suck the nutrients from our souls, and dim our days just that much more.

Remember the rules listed above for solid, proficient lying, and hopefully the next time you want to act like God and alter someone's reality the paint won't peel off it for years and years.

Happy subterfuging!


RossK said...

Still laughing at Rule #1

Jas... said...

I shot Coke out my nose when I passed over the USA Today survey comment, so I want to say thanks, you @!#$%!!


It's true in fact, that liars who use the 99 cent lie often find that it collapses because they didn't choose to believe that lie themselves. Take Tony Robbins, if he'd chosen to lie to your wife about the invitations, then he should have chosen to make that lie real in his own head so it won't come back to bite him on the ass later.

Excellent post, my friend. One of your more thought provoking!

Whetam Gnauckweirst said...

Sorry about the nasal/Coke incident, and that's no .99-cent-er.

I think you're right about liars who make use of prefabricated .99 cent lies don't believe themselves. Aren't we our first audiences? Of course.

I think we should all get back to issuing one another demerits for the shit we pull on one another. Or what they have in soccer -- the green card, the yellow card, and finally the red card.

Then a slap across the face with a rubber fish.