When they were quite young my kids believed in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and the Great Croaking Lizard of Death (who lived under the bridge near the ice cream store). I funded the Tooth Fairy to ensure credibility, and the cost of maintaining Santa Claus nearly got out of hand.
I’m willing to bet that if you are a parent, you’ve lied to your kids about all these, except maybe for the Lizard.
I’m also willing to bet that you’ve lied in answer to the questions “Do you think this makes me look fat?”, “Isn’t that the most adorable baby?” and “Do you have any spare cash?”
We all lie. Believe me, it’s the truth. Lies are part of our tool-kit.
But are lies always OK? Never OK? Are there rules of engagement when lying?
When Mark Twain said “A lie is an abomination unto the LORD, but a very present help in time of trouble”, he put his finger on the issue: lies are intrinsically immoral, but they are useful.
Let me suggest a test for whether or not fibbing crosses the line: if it is calculated to provoke a response which is beneficial to you and detrimental to the other person, then the lie is a black one and not a white one.
That said, even if this test is accepted, there are caveats. The first is that society and regulators have put such a premium on truthfulness in certain situations that penalties are attached to untruthfulness whether or not damage arises. Lawyers, engineers, architects, doctors and most other professions are absolutely rigid in their standards of truthfulness (lawyer jokes notwithstanding) because public welfare depends on it. If an engineer says that a bridge is safe, the world relies on her professional integrity. As a lawyer I am obliged to disclose cases which are against my position as well as favourable ones. Justice relies on fairness.
Another caveat is that we become what we do. Lies are like alcohol or junk food-- a little is of no great harm, but you can quickly find yourself too comfortable and too reliant. One of the disciplines of a good life is the discipline of truthfulness. Like choosing the stairs instead of the elevator, you know that you will be a better person for accepting the consequence of telling the truth rather than slinking away with a lie.
Thirdly, all of our important personal and professional relationships rely on reliance. Our spouses, our business partners, our clients and our employees expect that what we say can be trusted. If that fails, relationships fail.
But what about the "Elephant in the Room", Donald Trump?. “The Donald” lied outrageously during his campaign and continues to lie shamelessly. He doesn’t even try to be consistent-- he lies about his lies. And yet he got to be the President of the United States of America. Doesn’t that prove that lying works?
No. It doesn’t, and it won’t. It will end badly for him, and perhaps for all of us. The laws of nature always prevail.
Watch for an upcoming comprehensive discussion about how key elements of society set themselves up to make Donald Trump inevitable by normalizing their respective self-serving untruths. Believe me!
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Norman Bowley is a communicator by passion, a lawyer and educator by profession. Thirty-six years of legal practice after ten years as an educator have equipped Norm to teach professionals how to communicate effectively and with power.