Thursday, 14 July 2011

Truth and Untruth

Diogenes Searching for an Honest Man
Painting Attributed to J.H.W. Tischbein (circa 1780) 

The legend goes that Diogenes of Sinopi (404 or 412 BCE-323BCE) had a habit of strolling about in broad daylight, carrying a lamp. When asked what he was doing he said "I'm searching for an honest man".

The other night, at a village function,  I told a totally unnecessary lie.  I gained nothing by it, I lost nothing by it. The subject under discussion was a village lady's request for charitable donations of second-hand clothes and shoes, among other items, which are to be transported to an Eastern European country. Without thinking I made a remark boasting of many pairs of barely worn shoes and work suits lurking in my wardrobe which I would have to sort through some day very soon. In my defence I must say that I actually believed them when I uttered the words, but the truth is that I have already given most of the items away to previous collections.  I lied. 

Although this lie is not going to lose me much sleep, it made me think of truth and deceit and how easy it is to blur the lines between.

"My train was late"

"The cheque is in the post", although this lie is less often used since electronic banking has taken over.

"He always tried his best"

"Every word in my CV is true"

"Your pensions/National Health Service/jobs are safe with us"

"Greedy bankers?/Phone Hacking?/War for the sake of Oil?  Never!

"We have the means to cope with nuclear disasters".

"It's not you, it's me. I still love you, but I need some space"

"I'd never cheat on you"

At work, at home, in love, in politics, we tell lies and we are lied to. Up to 200 times a day, according to recent statistics. Is ordinary human interaction possible without convenient silences, half truths, the polite little social lie?

Is there anyone who can say they never lie?

Pretty much all the honest truth telling in the world is done by children.  ~Oliver Wendell

Truth is such a rare thing, it is delightful to tell it.  ~Emily Dickinson

Society can exist only on the basis that there is some amount of polished lying and that no one says exactly what he thinks.  ~Lin Yutang

There are many quotes about truth and deceit, most praise the value of truthfulness, some admit that lies can be expedient and some are downright cynical about our inability and inclination to tell the truth. When a high-ranking Civil Servant coined the phrase 'being economical with the truth' his verbal dexterity and, no doubt, his ability to blend fact and fiction, called forth amusement and applause. Some media organs almost make a point of slanting the news, particularly around election time or when reporting on human frailty. The fantasy shouts at you in the headlines, the subsequent apology or clarification is hidden on page five.

Should we be more courageous and tell the truth, no matter what? Sometimes the truth is painful, do we actually want to hear the unvarnished truth? How about being honest to the taxman? Would we buy many goods if advertisers were obliged to describe them truthfully? How about the second-hand car salesman,  and his description of the car he is trying to sell you? When applying for jobs, do we really want to tell our prospective employer that we are no better than the next candidate and that we have embroidered our curriculum vitae?

On many occasions I listen to somebody's sales pitch with the inbuilt assumption that I am not being told the whole, unadulterated, truth.

During my first ten years in the UK I was appalled by the apparent ease with which people indulge in social lying. "We must meet soon", You are looking well today", They are a delightful couple", "The children are doing marvellously well". All bare-faced lies. or are they?

"It's called 'oiling the wheels' of social intercourse, it's not really lying", Beloved tells me. Fine, I accept this now. Personally, I can't be bothered to use these phrases.

Whenever I catch myself telling a lie - call it fibbing, a white lie, flattery, time-saving, expediency, whatever you wish - I feel bad, guilty, a little ashamed. Whenever I realise that I have just been told a lie, I am greatly annoyed. When people in authority, politicians, the media, lie to me, in common with a large percentage of the population, I feel disinclined to believe them even when they tell the truth. In the age of the internet, we know so much sooner when politicians, the media, scientists as in the case of the Japanese disaster, lie to us; when forced to admit mistakes they may use salami-tactics - i.e. reluctantly feed us the truth slice by slice - , but eventually they have to come clean.

Of course, there are times when nothing but the truth will do.

Are there times when the choice between truth and untruth is not quite as clear cut and black and white? Or, as so often in our fallible lives, are there times when a shade of grey somewhere in-between will do?

Where do you stand? Quick answers on a postcard, please.



  1. i think it is refreshing to find one that speaks truth...i think at times that you have to parce truth from perception which can be a tricky thing as our worldviews color our i think you have to start but understanding what is truth...

    i think that might fit on a postcard...smiles.

  2. All storytellers are liars, fabricating the truth. Yet it is the truth they fabricate so well. If only politicians could do the same. Their lies are so repetitiously dull. LOL

  3. There are shades of grey in my latest graphic, but I think they are allowable...

  4. I'm always appalled when a bent truth or bald lie escapes my lips. I never intend it, but it's just so hard to sort out the core truth when I find so many things complicated beyond unraveling, so it's the trouble of parsing it all that I'm avoiding, usually. With Emily, I find it thrilling to sometimes just plop the facts out there...the highest intoxication I know.

  5. I've thought of this myself recently and came to the conclusion that I must start with being absolutely honest with myself first and foremost.

    This quote by Nietzsche says so much: "I'm not upset that you lied to me. I'm upset that now I can't believe you." That's the real harm that lying does.

    I appreciate your honesty in bringing this up through your own experience. and the image and quote attributed to Diogenes is the perfect approach.

  6. I find myself often "making nice" because it's so much more pleasant than being snarky and finding fault with people or things. When writing comments, I sometimes struggle to find something nice to say, and that's when I might be stretching the truth a little, but it's okay to stretch it, IMHO. Very thoughtful post. 200 times, huh? That seems really scary to me. I'll watch myself from here on out. (Is that a lie?)

  7. I occasionally do that "innocent lie" thing, then I mentally slap my palm on my forehead. It makes no sense to me to do that, and yet I do "make nice" in some situations rather than simply remain silent. I think I'm getting better at being real and honest in my utterances, or at least I hope I am.

  8. My 86-year-old Mom did a calculation recently, on how many months would her nest egg last? After scratching across the paper, doing long division, she looked up in horror: "Eleven years is all!" She waited for my response. Should I have:
    1. Laughed
    2. Protested the facts
    3. Reassured her with white lies and platitudes
    Guess what I did? #3 of course.

  9. These days when I find myself uttering a mistatement of the facts, I quickyly try to say, I tell a lie, and correct the statement. As you said, lying is so unnecessary. Social lying is the wost of all. I have found that most people are uncomfortabable if you tell the truth in these circumstances, however. "No, I don't want to see you again, you are the most boring person I ever met." Dianne

  10. If it's really important, tell me the truth. If it isn't and if it will keep from hurting my feelings, lie please.

  11. I like the 'oiling the wheels of social intercourse' - that's what it really is. I couldn't fib to my kids, at least I haven't been able to up to now. I work in a field in which I expect to be lied to every day, probably every hour. It's tiring. I'm guilty of the social lie - how can I tell someone that the orange sofa is hideous? It's so much easier to say 'it's such a vibrant orange'.

  12. By the way, Friko, my daughter just got me to read The Book Thief. It was so so good.

  13. I agree with marciamayo. Sometimes the truth hurts and unnecessarily so.

  14. truth ties closely into real. an untruth ties closely into fantasy. in my own experiencing, people seem to waver moment by moment in the great spaces that exist between those two states (which at times become indistinguishable). it's an unfortunate but colourful aspect of the human condition! steven

  15. As Picasso so aptly put it: "Art is a lie that makes us realize truth."'s off to the drawing board! ;)

  16. If we believe the lie in the moment we are telling it is it still a lie? I tend to be blunt and tell the truth as I see it. I have found that people don't really like that no matter what they say. Harmless lies that make people feel good are better than painful truths that have no purpose I think. And people ask questions they aren't really interested in getting truthful answers to. Like 'how are you doing today?'. What they want to hear is 'fine' regardless of the true answer so they can get on with the social interaction. So who is responsible for the lie? The questioner or the answered?

  17. Lying takes a lot of energy, and sometimes I just can't be bothered with it and would just as soon be rude. An example would be, last night I was watching the news, a neighbor came over wanting to talk, and all I could do is tell the truth. I'm watching the news. It had to be said twice though.

    Sometimes being dishonest is a necessary evil--the CV, etc. Other times, I don't know I'm lying until after, like with the shoes and suits. Overall, lying hurts me and it hurts those I lie to--sometimes.

    The liar is ultimately responsible for the lie, but sometimes that is no problem for me. If you ask me how I am and I'm miserable; I'm going to tell you I'm fine. I'm okay with that.

    I wrote tiny on my postcard. :-)

  18. Actually we encourage people to lie. We don't want to hear that we're too fat, or that the product we're about to plunk down cash for has been carefully engineered to break in exactly 2 days after the warranty expires. We desperately want to believe our politicians have our and the nation's best interests at heart. It's how we soldier on when the truth would send us to a dark closet to close the door behind us.

  19. Beauty is truth, truth beauty (Keats). So if the truth is ugly? Do we make it beautiful?

  20. I am so disheartened by the amount of "untruths" we have been fed by our leaders here in the US that, sadly, if someone did make a truthful statement I would not believe that either...
    And so I decided to be clear myself...someone asked me recently how my summer was going and I bluntly stated - "it is not." Later, I felt like an old crab and but at least I was a truthful old crab.

    A great post, Friko - and that is the truth!!!

  21. There's so much to think about here and then respond to that would never fit on even the largest postcard.

    Lying to children is what bothers me the most. Like telling a child that an injection won't hurt. "Yes," we told our children, "it will hurt, just a little, for just a second. And I'll be there with you." Why lie?

  22. We all get entangled in webs
    of deceit, for we have to caution
    our children about their baldface
    honestly, when they point at the
    lame, deformed, ethnic group,
    obese, diminutive among us,
    trying to teach them about candor;
    so where does the truth lead us
    most of the time? Can we tell our
    Boss that he or she is an ogre and
    a bully, the ape in the corner office?
    Can we intervene when our adult
    children make decisions we know they
    will soon regret? Can we tell our spouses
    everything we are thinking all the time?
    Can we respect all the rules of society,
    behave beyond reproach, of course not.
    Any among us that say they are 100%
    truthful is a damned lier, for this is the
    realm of self delusion and hypocrisy.
    We are lied to by politicians, by the media,
    by the clergy, by our children--we are force
    fed "the big lie" by our government daily,
    and besides I have found that all creative
    people stretch and embellish the "truth",
    creating their own universe, their own
    landscape in which they are the hero,
    loved and respected for who they are,
    a basically decent person who lies
    several times a day out of necessity.

  23. I am all for truth. Even blunt truth can be told in a polite and gentle way. I really do try not to lie, most of the time ;)

  24. Hello:
    We would certainly concur that telling the truth is not always as easy as one would like or hope that it should be. Very often in social dialogue [and we would include here 'virtual' dialogue] one is aware of what the perceived 'correct' response is to a particular question and not to give it can take courage on the part of the commenter or can be hurtful to the receiver. And, it is most certainly the case that one lie does very often lead to several more out of necessity. "Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive"

  25. The truth is the reality we rarely want to face

  26. There are indeed so many arenas you've covered. I'm wise to the lies of politicians and advertisers. What's more difficult, and important in some ways, is in relationship with friends and family. Each situation warrants its own assessment I feel. Have you seen the fine movie "Snow Cake" with Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman? I recommend it. Weaver plays an autistic woman who has little of the 'civilized' behavior we build in society. She tells you exactly what she thinks, likes and doesn't like. By the end of the movie I wondered why we can't be more like her: "I don't want to be with you now, go away." But no, we tolerate our own discomfort, sometimes to the point of near-torture, to put up with people who annoy us.

  27. I like to imagine humans being completely truthful with each other. It would work beautifully if that's all we knew, but the trouble is, we're too used to the other way. I'm no stranger to the LWL, but in general prefer to be very honest. The difficulty comes if I know someone will be un-neccessarily hurt by my honesty, in which case I prefer a little prevarication.

  28. It prefer the new term "truthiness" which says all we need to do about this divide.
    As to me I hate evasion more than anything, not knowing where you are and I am. Lie to me. Or be truthy.

  29. I'm with Emily D. Lock, stock and barrel.

    This is one of the best posts I've read in a while.

  30. Frisko -- Instead of lying, I just go mum.

    But aside from my personal ways I thought i would mention a good book: VACLAV HAVEL "Living in Truth." An excellent book I read several years ago and pull it down ever so often to refresh my thoughts. Here is one phrase from the book, "those apparently powerless individuals who have the courage to speak the truth out loud and stand by what they say body and soul, and are prepared to pay dearly for doing so have -- astonishingly enough -- greater power -- however formally disenfranchised they are -- than thousands of anonymous electors in other circumstances."

    -- barbara

  31. it's true, it is way to easy to mis-speak, say what you think people want to hear. Lies are serious. Nothng for me is worse than deceipt. I slip up when I am not paying attention, which I am working harder at. If I think the truth will hurt or offend then I try to be as skillful as possible, not as caustic as possible. What is helping me most is realizing that I don't always have to answer or add my 2 cents.

  32. Sometimes a thing can be 'emotionally true' while factually false. I'm more interested in the emotions of those around me more than 'correctititude"

    Aloha from Waikiki;

    My posts seem to be updating again!!!! Hooray!

    Comfort Spiral


    > < } } ( ° >

    < ° ) } } > <

  33. Be true to yourself. Have you examined the reason why that particular white lie?

  34. My thoughts, spoken or otherwise, on any given topic change almost with the tides. So if I tell the truth at 7am, it's a lie by noon.

  35. Mom always taught us to not speak unless we had something nice to say... yet there are times when I have to wonder, isn't omitting speaking up sometimes the same as the 'little white lie' to say something nice?

  36. In the words of Ben "obi-wan" Kenobi - "You're going to find that most of the truths you cling to depend largely on your point of view"

    or similar.

    The point is that what is true to you may not be true to me and vica versa - so who is telling the lie?

  37. So much to think about here. T'would be good to think that we could go thru life being honest about everything - but sometimes the truth needs to be stretched to protect those we care about. And - yes - it would be nice to think that we could live in a perfectly true and honest world..wouldn't it??

  38. I love this post!

    -Sorry, I couldn't resist. In truth, I like this post. I like that you ask these kinds of questions, which are hard to answer postcard quick. I tend to be silent in social situations where the truth would probably be hurtful. These silences can be awkward, to use a cliche, if I can't find some harmless way of amusing those around me (or if I don't feel like it). But I 'd rather have an awkward silence than lie. Like you I can't stand the idea of lying. I wonder, by the way, if truthfulness is really as rare as some of the quotes you've given suggest. I'm sure there's a fair number of people who hate to lie.

  39. I will confess that I don't think honesty is always the best policy in social situations. I don't like joining in with the little social lies and do my best to avoid them, but I'm continually surprised at how hard that can be. I hate to hurt anyone's feelings, and particularly with shop people or casual acquaintances who venture opinions that I find wrong-headed, I simply don't want to engage. I'm afraid I do bob and weave a bit to keep things amicable.

  40. The biggest lie is that we know the truth.

  41. Lying is part of living no one can be honest all the time or one would not have any friends, families, co workers that would want to speak or deal with us.
    There is a different between a small, silly lie and those that cut people and souls apart.

  42. A lot of the compliments one dishes out every day ... I love your new haircut , That colour really suits you , What a lovely puppy , That was delicious .... are , if not lies , certainly wild exaggerations .
    Do I lie ? Yes .


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