Columnists > Voices

Truth be told

Why are people prone to tell instinctive-obvious-lies?

Issue: "Salting Hollywood," Sept. 3, 2005

Is it my imagination, or has there been an increase in the public use of the word lie and its variations? The Wilson-Plame-Rove affair blazes with these incendiary terms, which only obscure the issue. To render the facts as objectively as possible, it appears that Ambassador Wilson told conflicting versions of his story, yet still insists that all prevarications are on the other side. But tracking down the details of that labyrinthine case is beside my point. I'm wondering why, in an age when truth is supposed to be relative, the charge of "liar!" is made with mounting indignation.

Falsehoods can be divided into two major classes, those that are deliberate and those that are not. Of the deliberate lies, some are told for evil purposes-for gain or guile, as when Jezebel paid witnesses to accuse falsely Naboth so she could seize his vineyard for her husband Ahab. But deliberate lies can be told for noble ends as well, as when the Hebrew midwives misled Pharaoh, or Rahab re-directed her Jericho townsmen searching for the Israelite spies.

In the not-deliberate category, some "lies" are simply misjudgments, slips of the tongue or errors, such as making a statement based on false information (WMDs, anyone?). Except in politics, no one merely mistaken is called a "liar."

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But there's another lie that may belong in a category of its own, "undeliberate" in the sense that it's not deliberated. It is in fact so easy and natural as to feel instinctive.

Several years ago I was watching an episode of The People's Court, Judge Joseph Wapner presiding. In that day's case, a young woman accused a young man, previously unknown to her, of denting her car in a parking lot. He insisted he didn't do it, and was only easy prey for the groping tentacles of the insurance company. Both seemed to have an equal claim to truth.

Then the judge took everyone out to the lot, where the two cars were conveniently parked side by side. There the plaintiff demonstrated that the edge of the defendant's car door was the exact height and shape, if opened with sufficient force, to do that particular damage to her vehicle. The case was settled to everyone's satisfaction except the defendant's, who insisted on his innocence, with sighs and shrugs, all the way through the sentencing.

Granting that the whole episode was staged, I've seen enough people behave this way in real life to wonder, why not just admit the lie and throw oneself on the mercy of the court?

Since the defendant's common sense could tell him he wasn't fooling anybody, maybe there was a deeper motive at work: to confess truth would expose the lie he's been telling himself-that he's a straight-up guy who does to others as he would be done by-except, maybe, when he's angry for good cause. It's the kind of lie a child tells when caught red-handed, the kind Peter told when swearing he'd never met that Galilean, the kind I have blurted out when faced with evidence of my own character flaws. It's not deliberated; it doesn't have to be, because the ones we've first deceived are ourselves.

This sort of lying may be more common now, in a plastic world molded by illusion. Recently, Rafael Palmeiro of the Baltimore Orioles shook the world of baseball when he tested positive for stanozolol, a powerful steroid. What made the revelation so shocking was Mr. Palmeiro's emphatic testimony last March, before a congressional panel, that he had never taken such drugs, and never would. Some sports commentators seemed to feel betrayed. How could he lie so blatantly? How could he be that stupid?

Here's how: "The heart is deceitful above all things" (Jeremiah 17:9). "Behold, [God delights] in truth in the inward being" (Psalm 51:6), the very place where He is least likely to find it. The inward being says, in desperate paraphrase, "Let me be true-the noble whistleblower, the hardworking athlete, the good fellow-though everyone else were a liar."

"A man who will lie will do anything," I once heard a preacher say. Deceit is his primary fault, the fountainhead of all the rest. A call to repentance is first of all a demand to admit the lie and throw himself on the mercy of the court.

Someone is there, with scarred hands outstretched to catch him.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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