Virtual Voices

The death of truth

Culture

Several days ago I found this small news item about Bristow Group Inc., a helicopter transport services firm whose affiliate paid bribes to the Nigerian government in return for tax reductions. What struck me was the wording of the company's settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission: "Bristow neither admitted nor denied the charges but agreed to stop violating federal anti-bribery laws."

In the same article, a Bristow executive takes credit for reporting the bribery, engaged in by people on the company's payroll in Nigeria. Now, to be sure, no company can police all of its employees and contractors, all of the time. And there is something to be said for the fact that Bristow reported the violation to the SEC. At the same time, this legalese sticks in the craw, especially when it's followed by self-congratulation for admitting the non-admission. I'm not saying I did it, your honor, but I promise to stop. And hats off to me for being so forthcoming.

It set me to wondering how often this happens. I did a Google search of the terms "admitted nor denied" and "stop doing," and found plenty of reading material. There is the group of hospital executives who formed a company to sell "marketing advice" to the vendors who sought their business. Title insurance companies that secretly set up payments to real estate agents who steered business their way. Executives who establish shell companies so they can receive unreported income from the companies they are supposed to be stewarding. A company that sold life insurance to U.S. soldiers by promising a "savings fund" component that, when you read the fine print, barely rose above their premium payments. Once they were exposed, all had the same response: We're not saying we did anything wrong, but we promise to stop now that you've caught us.

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To be fair, we've seen cases of governments bludgeoning companies with overblown charges, until the targeted company finds it's better off settling than fighting back. At times it seems our nation's politicians are leading businessmen, lawyers, journalists, politicians, real estate agents, and other professions in the race to see who can be perceived as the least trustworthy. Perhaps this is what unsettles me about events like the Bristow Group's non-announcement of a non-act that they promise to stop non-doing -- the fact that it doesn't draw laughter, or outrage. It's just one more small news item in a world that no longer cares to pretend that truth matters. A company can simultaneously admit wrongdoing and deny wrongdoing, all while promising to stop doing what it won't admit it ever did in the first place, and this is a commonplace.

It makes you think, doesn't it, about how much of our everyday life is consumed by half-truths and small lies.

Yes boss, I think your strategic vision makes sense.

Nice sermon today, Reverend.

Kids, I'm working these long hours because I want to give you everything you need.

I don't know about you, but sometimes I feel no different than a politician on the stump, promising everything to everyone, because while we have less and less grace for liars (as witnessed by the success of "gotcha" journalism), we have even more disdain for anyone who tells us the ugly, unglamorous truth. Truth was crucified on Golgotha, and we murder it again every day in our business, our politics, our personal lives.

Here's a thought experiment: what would happen if, just for one day, we all of us told the truth? Would it be heaven, or hell?

Or consider a wrinkle on that scenario: what if we all stopped lying? No more white lies, no truth-shadings, no self-deception. There would be nothing on television. Politicians would have to shelve their speeches. Corporate annual reports would be reduced to postcards. The magazines in your grocery store checkout line would just have menus, and articles on how to cut an onion without crying.

Things would certainly get a lot quieter. Maybe we all ought to give it a try.

Not that I'm admitting or denying that I'm a liar, of course. I'm just saying that I'd like to stop.

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