You don’t mean to. Neither do they. Neither do I. And yet we do. We all do. We all lie. So if we all lie, we are all lied to.
Lies come in all sorts of forms. One lies to escape trouble. One lies to make another feel better. One lies to defraud another. So are all lies not equal? If they are not, why are those actions not given a different label? I suppose they are in a way. My dad used to tell us these grand tales and he called them “Whoppers” and we loved it. Being pulled into a story that is so largely fantastic that it cannot possibly be true, but with just enough plausibility that it could be, only to discover that it is not, just at the moment we had fallen for it was great fun. But was he lying? There is also the proverbial “white lie” which is a grade of seriousness just above a “fib” which is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a childish lie”. But how does something being “white” make it less grave than not and aren’t all untruths childish?
And what about those lies that we tell because we want so desperately for something to be true? As a loved one, teammate, fellow soldier, or even stranger lies (as in horizontally) bleeding and broken, do we not tell them, “Hang in there; you are going to be okay” even when they clearly are not? And would we not be appalled by someone who would dare say, “No, dude, you are going to be dead in a matter of minutes”? And do we not tell our young son or daughter that they sang beautifully even though they were off-pitch, out-of-tune, and flat? He or she has just stepped off of a stage they were terrified to walk onto and performed a solo that sucked, but they came off smiling, exuberant, and proud. Think Little Miss Sunshine. To lie is to tell a falsehood and to basically trick someone which by most accounts would be considered wrong and unjust. But in that circumstance, would it not be more wrong to say, “Oh honey, you were terrible and those people are only clapping to be nice. You lack vocal talent and your singing hurts my ears and grates on my nerves”?
When you are stopped by a cop and he or she asks, “Do you know why I stopped you?” it is incumbent upon you to say “No” for the very reason that under the United States Constitution, the state is required to prove your guilt, even though you know darned well that you were traveling 70 mph in a 55 mph zone. The allowance that is made is the 5th Amendment which states that you do not have to incriminate yourself. So in that case, you have an “out”. But what about when your four-year-old is standing at the edge of the family room in her cute little footsy pajamas and says “Hi Mommy” with a mouthful of cookie and yet categorically denies having retrieved cookies from the cookie jar? The evidence is covering her tongue with chocolate smears on her fingers so you know that she is lying. Do you feel wronged in the same way as you would if you found your spouse had dabbled in a different sort of cookie jar and then denied it even though the lipstick is on the collar or the used condom stuck to the heel of her shoe? Of course not, but they are both lies. There is therefore something greater at stake than being given false information.
Sometimes we lie without even knowing it. Information is insufficient or we are not privy to it but we make a declaration of fact only to learn later that we were incorrect. Are we responsible for speaking a lie in that case? Lawyers try to litigate that and provide outs by including “I know the above to be true to the best of my knowledge.” Well isn’t that convenient considering we have no ability to prove what is inside someone’s head?
These lies that lie waiting like snakes in the grass can sometimes bite us and other times let us continue on without recourse. But there is one person who always knows. And to that person you are accountable. You are accountable to yourself. When Polonius says to his departing son, “To thine own self be true,” he is not telling him to never lie, but instead to always watch out for his own self-interest and thereby be better positioned to assist in the needs of others. That is hardly the deontological version of ethical theory that I so proudly have ascribed to, however, there is wisdom there. This oracle is contrary to the lesson of Pinocchio whose nose grew on account of his lying but who was rewarded, not for untelling his lies, but by saving his father at the expense of himself. Once again, there is something greater at play. And still, we lie in bed at night and sometimes fall asleep thinking of lying.