“Mr. Keyes’ book is both pertinent and well-timed.”
When I was four or perhaps five years old I was out on the porch playing with a child’s set of plastic carpenter’s tools with a neighbor child, Curt Tacey. For reasons lost to history, I took the hammer and clunked Curt on the head with it. Curt went off and informed his mother of this development, who informed my mother, who came out to consult with me. Asked how it had come to pass that a hammer had hit Curt on the head, I, thinking quickly, replied: “It fell off the roof.”
I do not know how those of who are reading this column would characterize my statement. I do, however, strongly suspect how Ralph Keyes, author of the recently published, The Post-Truth Era, would characterize it. Mr. Keyes, I think, would say that I was lying.
Lying is a wonderful subject, and not given nearly the honest attention it deserves. Such attention it now receives from Mr. Keyes, whose work to date consists in fair measure of giving intelligent consideration to fairly everyday things – the lifelong effects of one’s high school, or one’s height. Here, as elsewhere, his approach to the subject is comprehensive, calling upon an extensive body of research and covering lying through history, lying across varied cultures and age groups, and lying by chimpanzees, specifically Koko, the laboratory chimp who having mastered the rudiments of abstract communication immediately began to fib.
There is, of course, a serious core. While obviously there are no reliable figures to be cited, Mr. Keyes is doubtless correct in asserting that lying is becoming more common. The rise of moral relativism may make it less clear just what a lie is. The fragmented nature of our lives might make it seem less likely that a given lie will come back to haunt one.
Mr. Keyes’ book is both pertinent and well-timed. We have just survived a presidential election in which both campaigns devoted vast expertise to “spinning” each candidate’s remarks, so that voters would not confuse what a candidate actually said with what the candidate actually said. Indeed, straightforward statement is so rare in public life that when attorney general Janet Reno took responsibility for the fiasco at Waco, she briefly became something of a national hero. Fiascos, we have plenty of. But honesty – now that’s news.
All societies, Mr. Keyes writes, have liars, though commonly the opprobrium they attach to lying is conditional. Lying to an outsider is more tolerable than lying to a member of one’s own people. Distressingly, he reports that the young women of American Samoa who regaled anthropologist Margaret Mead with impressive tales of sexual frivol were almost certainly putting her, an outsider, on.
Fortunately, he reports, there are substantial bars to lying. People are less inclined to lie in what they see as the central arena of their lives. He tells of one potential homebuyer, upset with the transparent dishonesty of the seller, who is startled to learn that the owner has, in his regular business dealings, a splendid reputation for integrity. Lying in his business dealings would undermine his reputation, a thing that has value in business. Lying to a homebuyer is, well, free.
In the end, Mr. Keyes’ book becomes an endorsement of the individual – to be known to be as good as one’s word is a remarkably empowering thing – and of the community, which, to the extent it can fairly believe what its members say, has that much less need to regulate and check up on them. The little boy who cried wolf, after all, eventually came to a point at which he needed others to believe him. And they didn’t. That’s wolf, one; boy, nothing, if you’re scoring.