2013-08-09

How Lying Applies To Merit Versus Rules

This past week, I've been suffering from a pretty serious cold. Naturally, this means that I inevitably subjected myself to that timeless modern equation: Illness + Netflix = TED Talks. In particular, I watched a rather fascinating talk from Pamela Meyer, on lie-spotting:
Overall, Meyer presents a very interesting look at lying: how to tell when you're being lied to, what lies look like, how often people lie, and so on. Meyer won me over right off the bat by presenting her first "truth about lying," which is that lying is a collaborative act. This statement deeply resonated with me because it is fully consistent with my views about entertaining other people's illusions.

This hit me all the harder because, earlier in the week, an acquaintance of mine made the choice to tell me a series of lies that we both knew were lies. That person's hope was that I would tolerate the lie, let it slide, let her entertain her illusion, and thus let her off the hook.

You know, when someone tells a little white lie ("No, Ryan, you don't look too sick to work - you look fine! Great even!") there's no reason not to let that person off the hook. They're lying mostly to make me feel better. Meyer discusses this point, too. She says, "We're all against lying... but covertly for it." In other words, we all obviously despise deception, but we appreciate the thoughtful gesture of someone complimenting us even when we look ill, or finding something good to say about someone's efforts even when those efforts fall far short. The point of these nice gestures is to keep people motivated and to let them know that we value them even when they're not at their best. Lies are probably not the only - nor even the best - way to convey that sentiment, but, after all, it's the thought that counts. No one tells such lies with malice, so it's forgivable, because it isn't deceptive.

Deception, however, is always a problem. It's bad enough when the people with whom you interact are always behaving dishonestly in order to take advantage of other people. I won't waste space here in an attempt to prove the obvious. But often times, the reason many people engage in deception is simply to make themselves feel better. This is cowardice to the extreme, and this was the kind of lie that my acquaintance saw fit to tell me.

In your own interpersonal relationships, you're bound to encounter this yourself from time to time. Sometimes people would rather lie to maintain a comfortable illusion than own up to the truth about a situation they would prefer not to acknowledge.

Take, for example, Anonymous Charmer's decision to refuse to read Stationary Waves in response to my consistent rebuttals of his arguments. It suited him better to lie about being insulted than to respond in substance. This is common in debates had with people who are not "honest truth-seekers." If arriving at a truthful conclusion feels unpleasant to someone, that person will sometimes prefer simply lying, not to avoid "getting caught," but simply to maintain the illusion of rightness in his or her own mind.

We see similar situations in the professional world. Sometimes people find it easier to lie about reasons they could not do their work than to simply sit down and actually work. Of course, lazy people often dig their own graves in doing so, but only so long as the rest of us don't collaborate with the lie. All too often, we coworkers will step in to do extra work to meet the pressing deadline and please the customer, or take a load off of the lazy employee to make ourselves look pro-active, or to generate some good will and improve workplace relationships.

These all might be good reasons for collaborating with a workplace lie, but those of us who have a very low tolerance for deception - such as myself - will be inclined to first acknowledge the lie in addition to solving the problem. In other words, I have no issues with working twice as hard to compensate for a bad colleague, but I find it insulting to have to carry the burden of both their work and their lies. If I'm going to do someone else's share of the work, I would at least like it if the rest of the people involved acknowledged that I am doing extra because someone else is doing less, rather than carrying on with the deception that the lazy person really doesn't have the ability to do his or her work, and the responsibility falls to me anyway.

Why? Because in the truthful scenario, everyone understands that I'm doing something good; in the deceptive scenario, I'm doing extra work, and not only am I not getting credit for doing extra, I may actually face punishment if for some reason I'm not able to complete extra work in accordance with a deadline that was set under the assumption that the other employee was not lazy and deceptive.

The problem with insisting on the truth, though, is that if everyone else is collaborating with a lie, a preference for truth becomes an act of social rebellion. We see this in the newspaper every day, as the majority Democrats deride every act of the minority Republicans as "obstructionism," when in fact what it really is is a minority party playing the politics that minority parties play. Any time one goes against a majority - regardless of whether one is right or wrong - one is seen as a social problem.

What adhering to the truth enables us to do is govern our lives according to the merits of our ideas and actions, rather than the rules of social engagement. I concede that some people feel that social engagement is better than any one meritorious thought or action. However, I believe that basing our social decisions on what works, rather than what provides social lubricant, results in the most social progress.