The problem with the truth

Is lying still considered a terrible sin? examines our attitudes on the dodgy moral topic that us of modern dishonesty

“No, your bum doesn’t look big in that”, “Of course I haven’t polished off your Ben and Jerry’s!”, “I was more an ‘environmental hygienist’ than a toilet attendant”

Is lying still considered a terrible sin? Suzi Farr examines our attitudes on the dodgy moral topic that us of modern dishonesty.

“No, your bum doesn’t look big in that”, “Of course I haven’t polished off your Ben and Jerry’s!”, “I was more an ‘environmental hygienist’ than a toilet attendant”.

Honesty is the best policy, of course it is; isn’t that what we’ve been taught all our lives? Yet it seems that steadfastly adhering to moral principles might be a hindrance to making it big – or just saving your neck.

Like most people, many students tell small lies for a whole host of reasons. Take the painful, “it isn’t you, it’s me” break-up scenario. Whether on the receiving end or not, it is clearly an avoidance of the truth, but probably a beneficial one. So, should evasion now feature as a life skill on the curriculum?

It seems that we now live in a world where we not only feel that we have to lie to get by, but where we also know that others are increasingly likely to yield to our demands due to an unwritten protocol. One needs only to monitor the refund counter of a department store, where almost every day someone will demand a refund, without a receipt, for an item that the store might not have stocked for some time. More often than not, depending on the persistence of the customer, the staff will pay up. After all, “the customer’s always right!”, and whilst young Jack might suspect that the customer is dishonest, it’s far easier for him not to be bothered by it.

Is there now just an expectation that people lie? Certainly no one can doubt that our society has evolved so that we now live in a world bubbling with professional dissemblers. Lawyers, advertisers, salesmen and that ever present breed of lovely “customer service reps” who will promise to ring you back and to sort out the error on your bill, but actually end up erasing all trace of the aforementioned conversation. On deciding to call again, you will inevitably be treated to frustrating mind games which will involve a degree of irritating jingle-jangle music, followed by the revelation that the problem is most definitely your fault. It is easier, and perhaps more economical, for your service rep to apportion blame, complicate matters, or stall communication, rather than fix the blasted wireless broadband connection or error on the gas bill.

Our growing cynicism about liars has produced strange results. The popular assumption that politicians are averse to the truth has made journalists super-keen to expose cover-ups, even to the point that they will fabricate them, whilst, when real lies are uncovered, they seem bizarrely nonplussed. For example, the tabloids showed great zeal in seeking to broadcast the self-serving media storm surrounding David Cameron in his bid for the Tory leadership, even though the seriousness of the situation was ridiculously minimal. Yet, the grade A lie divulged by Stephen Byers, the former Transport Secretary, over Railtrack affairs generated much less indignation, perhaps because it was a more expected, accepted and a less interesting lie. Byers admitted that he had indeed been untruthful with MPs about the date when he had taken on the role of ‘fat controller’ and liquidated Railtrack. But, in this case, no one is bothering to investigate the strange phenomenon of a man’s loss of his ability to conceive time and space. The mind boggles.

We have a natural ability to identify different degrees of dishonesty. Real lies are what powerful people (not students) do: UN oil for food officials, Tony Blair and WMDs, and Jacques Chirac who infamously claimed £100 a day for food. We perceive these acts as somewhat more serious than copping off work for the day with a hangover, avoiding the TV licence reminders, or pepping up the CV because you think you might get away with it. Whilst these actions do still seem dishonest to a large section of the population, isn’t honesty becoming a bit old fashioned and a bit out of step with the type of go-getting society we now find ourselves living in today?

With everyone else on the make and that elusive job interview coming up, it’s becoming increasingly difficult, or perhaps naïve, to stick to the moral high-ground. Margaret Thatcher epitomised the view that, “you don’t tell deliberate lies but sometimes you have to be evasive”: a fascinating and widespread view, but one that is seriously corrosive and worrying.

Alas, some companies have now taken the decision to take on experts who can spot lies on students’ CVs in order to help curb the lying endemic. No wonder, when only this year it was also was revealed that one in four students admitted to having taken material from the internet and then passed it off as their own. The action itself is alarming, but so too are the students’ brutal admissions of their dishonesty, with one in five not averse to admitting that they felt plagiarism was an acceptable practice. And what did the Plagiarism Advisory Committee do about it? They said that they were now very busy, “identifying examples of bad practice”. Nice excuse, but one which illustrates a reluctance to simply accept that the practice of plagiarism is wrong.

However, it can seem that many people are happy to excuse dishonesty. During a recent tête-à-tête à la café Barista with a fellow student, I listened conscientiously to what was seemingly a tale of inexcusable deceit. My companion divulged that whilst working last New Year’s Eve in a late-night bar, he had significantly upped the bills of already inebriated punters and pocketed the difference. His excuse was to blame the victims; if people get so drunk that they don’t notice the add-on, then it’s expected that they will be subject to such dishonesty.

Furthermore, the revelation at a recent seminar that more than half the students expected to be present had come down with “flu” was a bit much to stomach. Yet it seemed that the tutor preferred to put a rosy tint on the lie and believe what he preferred to believe: that honesty prevailed. After all, to allow himself to realise the dishonesty would entail catching up with all those in question. Perhaps it illustrates that students no longer value honesty as they once did, but rather the preference is for an illusion or appearance of honesty. For a minority of students, the prevailing view is that it’s smarter to “blag it” in a seminar than do the reading. To quote Henry Kissinger, “It’s not a matter of what is true that counts, but a matter of what is perceived to be true”.

Whilst political acts of corruption still invoke great indignation, some still endorse cheating, the terminal avoidance of lectures and the like as something that comes with the territory, so long as you get away with it. The fact that people more readily divulge their tales of dishonesty gives weight to the disturbing claim of moral downgrading. One American University found that at least one falsehood would be told in one-in-five ten-minute conversations. Apply the ten-minute conversation test to graduates and the proportion rises to one-in-three. If education endows a pupil with the ability to deceive convincingly, it might be the case that it will take a lot of hard graft to preserve the honest sentiments of the next generation.

Caught red-handed: famous liars and their blatant fibs

Michael Jackson

Apparently Michael has only had two nose jobs, ‘to help me breathe and sing better’, yet experts believe his face is near collapse.

Bill Clinton

‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman’. Well, as long as the semantics are correct then the law can’t touch you, Bill.

Paul Burrell

After the former butler graciously said that Diana’s story was not his to tell, the £300,000 pay off by the Daily Mirror seems to have eased his moral conscience slightly.

Jeffrey Archer

Is there anything that this man didn’t lie about?

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