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Our culture of deceit

Culture | No one likes being lied to, and yet we intentionally mislead others

Issue: "2012 Daniels of the Year," Dec. 15, 2012

I don’t like being lied to. It was bad enough when I had little children, and discovered now and then that they were twisting the truth to get out of a jam. (I’ll confess I did that as well, and too often when I was no longer a small child—leaving my parents in the same distressed state of mind).

But it’s ever so much worse when the person doing the lying has deliberately conceived a falsehood. We’re talking about someone who, with an eye on cheating or injuring you, tries to trick you by saying something that absolutely is not true.

I had something like that happen this morning—and my guess is that you’ve experienced similar efforts. The attempt to deceive me came in an envelope from a bank with whom I’ve done business for 20 years. “Borrow $1,000 from us,” the bank said, “and we’ll charge you no interest for the coming 14 months.” Or: “Transfer up to $27,000 in other balances, and we’ll let you use that money interest-free for the coming year.”

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To make it especially easy for me to fall into their trap, the bank sent me a blank check. All I needed to do was fill in the amount and sign my name.

No interest, they promised. The fine print explained, of course, that I would be billed for a “fee” amounting to 3 percent of whatever amount I borrowed. If I chose, for example, to borrow $10,000, I would immediately owe the bank $10,300—and nobody bothered to explain how such a “fee” is different from “interest.” Neither did they note why such “interest” gets tacked on at the front end of the loan. And they didn’t explain why the bank lumps this $300 in with the rest of the loan, but doesn’t include the $300 in the interest free offer—feeling free instead to charge its higher interest rate (15½ percent) on the $300 until it’s paid back. Or why all payments I make must go first to pay off the interest free part before even one penny goes to pay off the high interest $300! 

Complicated? Complicated on purpose. Did I feel snookered? You’d better believe it. I felt lied to. 

I’m sure the bank behind the mailing vetted all the copy with its lawyers—and that its officers would argue in court that the fine print was technically accurate. There’s a big difference, though, between accuracy and honesty. 

But it’s not just the big banks that worry me right now. Coming out of a presidential election campaign in which all sides repeatedly and radically distorted the truth, it’s time to assert again and again—as I stressed in my previous column in this space—that it’s more than the political process that needs cleaning up. It’s our whole culture. The political process will be saturated with dishonesty as long as the culture itself is saturated with dishonesty. 

So was it unusual last week when technology giant Hewlett-Packard charged that it had been duped last year—to the tune of perhaps $8.8 billion—when it purchased a software company in England? “There appears to have been willful sustained effort” by the selling company to inflate indicators of its revenue and profitability, CEO Meg Whitman told The Wall Street Journal. “This was designed to be hidden.” 

“Designed to be hidden.” It’s a phrase that may well have become the mantra of our age in commerce, banking, real estate, education, science, sports, journalism, government, and politics.

In all those contexts, and others, our culture has learned how to play fast and loose with the truth. And we Christian believers aren’t immune to the infection that saturates the culture we live in.

There is a solution. Jesus, who called Himself “The Truth,” offered the Golden Rule as a measuring device for all kinds of behavior—including the temptation to lie. So the next time you’re tempted, in your personal or corporate life, remind yourself how much you hate being lied to, and ask: “Would I want the person I’m addressing to treat me in such a manner?”

I wish my bank had asked itself that question. Because they didn’t, they just lost a long-time customer.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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