Truth falls victim to modern society; If someone claims to never lie, don’t believe it, author says
Few TV viewers younger than 40 probably remember the quiz show To Tell the Truth, which premiered in 1956 and ran, off and on, until 1991.
To Tell the Truth was a model of progressive simplicity. Three contestants claimed to be the same person. Two were lying. Four celebrity panelists questioned the contestants, one by one, then voted for the contestant they believed to be the real person – the one telling the truth. If a shrewd impostor could sell a convincing lie and stump the celebrities, the contestants were rewarded with vigorous applause, generous cash prizes and a home version of the TV show.
In a sense, To Tell the Truth was the nation’s first reality show because the format eerily mimics the way truth has been devalued and lies uplifted in the era of high-definition TV. And just like the quiz show, you have to constantly be on the lookout for real-life impostors whose tools of the trade are smoke and mirrors.
In his latest book, The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life, (St. Martin’s Press $24.95) Yellow Springs author Ralph Keyes suggests that the spreading of lies, deceptions, fibs and falsehoods has become more infectious in American society than the flu virus. And, he warns, it’s going to take more than a shot of truth serum to fight off the effects of this creeping epidemic.
Whether its the Internet, parents, faith leaders or politicians, people are running untouched into the vortex of deceit because they are not being held accountable for their lies and untruths. In this, his eighth book, Keyes submits that people have become so callous and disconnected that lying has become inextricably wedged into the craw of the American experience.
A 1966 Antioch College grad who calls himself a “mom-andpop sociologist,” Keyes theorizes that in this volatile cultural mix where humans are displaced, confused and sorely lacking in a sense of community, we no longer feel compelled to be honest with each other.
“There are two basic reasons not to lie,” said Keyes between sips of bottled water in the living room of his smart Yellow Springs bungalow. “One is because it’s wrong. That’s the internal reason – your conscience. The second is that you might get caught. This could cause problems with the people you’re connected to in a tribe, village or a small community like this one. But since so few of us live in those kind of environments, you are left with conscience. I don’t believe conscience or ethics alone are strong enough to keep us from putting each other on.”
Statistics on lying are difficult to track, and harder to swallow. Studies based in part on information at the 2000 Census Web site and the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that most people lie once or twice a day and deceive more than 30 folks a week. (“You look great in that dress!” “I don’t do drugs.” “Sure, I love raw fish!”)
One hundred percent of dating couples surveyed lied to each other in a third of their interactions, and college students lie in 50 percent of conversations with their parents. According to the IRS, more than 10 million people lie on their tax forms and, more astonishingly, we are lied to more than 200 times each day.
Honesty and dishonesty, says Keyes, are practical and functional. There is no scientific evidence to support the theory that the human genome is programmed to tell the truth.
“We have no natural tendency to be truthful or to lie,” he explained. “Earliest societies were small, tightly knit groups where lying was considered dysfunctional. It would have been impossible to sustain trust within such a self-fulfilling group if people could not be truthful. Earliest ethics said you had to be honest to your own kind. But strangers were another ball of wax. All bets were off. Early ethics had nothing to do with strangers or people outside your immediate clan.
“It wasn’t until St. Augustine (born in 340 A.D.) and philosopher Emmanuel Kant that lying became ethically wrong. We think of Kant as having a pure ethic that said you should never lie because it’s wrong. But he was much more practical. If you read his reasons for saying you shouldn’t lie, it’s because, ‘Lying would make a modern society impossible.’ ”
Despite tragic lapses in truth and honesty, modern society has managed to muddle along due, in part, to its faith systems. The Ten Commandments don’t specify lying as a sin, but Exodus 20:16 says, “You should not bear false witness against your neighbor,” and in Revelation 21: 7-8, people who lie, “shall find themselves in the lake of fire which is the second death.”
Keyes observed that each religion has its own concept of truth.
“The basic approach in every religion is that honesty is the best policy. To be dishonest is to forsake the Lord,” Keyes said. “And yet each religion has exceptions that reflect that religion. Islam has certain exceptions that Muhammad laid out, Judaism has certain exceptions and Christianity has certain exceptions. The problem is when you get into the exceptions. Who decides what the exceptions are?
“I think we all tell lies, and it has nothing to do with our personal religious faith. But to the degree that we can minimize those occasions, to the degree that we can be thoughtful and mindful when we are about to tell a lie, that to me is the key.
“I conclude, in The Post Truth Era, that, more than a moral or spiritual revival, what we need in our country is a stronger emphasis on personal human connections. The more we feel tied to each other, the less likely we are to tell each other lies.”