Everybody lies. A dear friend comes home from the hospital and shows you her new-born baby. She proudly asks, “Isn’t he cute?” And you don’t say “No . . . his head is oddly shaped . . . and he is red and wrinkled,” although that may be an honest response. You are late for a meeting and you excuse yourself by saying that you were stuck in traffic, not that you overslept. You detest your cousin Earl, and when he calls and tells you that he is going to drop in on you tomorrow (and that he might want to stay overnight!) you tell him that you will be out of town. And then you “head out” just in case he drops by. You have dinner at Aunt Ethel’s and after dinner she asks whether you enjoyed the new casserole that she improvised that afternoon while cleaning out her refrigerator. What can you do but lie? In all of these cases you know, deep down, that you are not telling the truth—are lying—but if you even think about it you probably say that they are “white lies” (whatever they may be).
We also hear about people lying to themselves—but if they lie to themselves they must project that lie to others. Polonius’s advice to Laertes, “to thine own self be true, and it will follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man” surely has a corollary: “but if you lie unto yourself my son, you cannot then be true to anyone.” We see this in Willy Loman, the protagonist of Death of a Salesman. Critics frequently discuss it as if it were a tragedy, but if there is a tragedy here, it is the tragedy of his poor wife! Willy simply doesn’t have the stature to be heroic—but this dim-bulb does have an ideology to which he adheres: he is a salesman! In practice this means that he can praise Acme Widgets as the best thing on the market one day, and if he loses his job he can praise Universal Widgets as the best the next day, and he can do all of this without recognizing that he is a liar: he’s proud that he’s just doing his job. This kind of lying is much worse than the telling of white lies; after all, they were told just to save face.
Even people we admire will easily slip into such lies: they are comfortable and warming since they confirm our beliefs. Some feminists are quick to say that a woman boss may be called a “bitch” for behavior that would cause a male boss to be called “firm,” “resolute,” “determined,” or perhaps, “hard-nosed.” It is true that the playing field is not level, and it’s likely there will always be men who will resent a woman boss because she is a woman, but that being said, this line is still much too pat. In fact, the unpleasant male boss would be despised and called a “bastard” and worse. (I know. I’ve had them.) Another claim of the same type is to say that Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, but she did it dancing backwards and wearing high-heels. Which means what . . . that she was much better than he was, but not given her just desserts because she was a woman? My guess is that she would have been the first to rebut this nonsense. She was a star in her own right and only occasionally his partner. He was not just a great dancer but also a choreographer as was Marge Champion of “Marge and Gower Champion”—whose name comes first!
Members of an anti-nuclear-power group once said that they lived in “constant terror” that a nuclear plant which was being constructed would be completed. To show how ridiculous this kind of talk is we can perform a “thought experiment” in which we imagine a set of circumstances that would put the speakers of such nonsense to test: are they likely to have the same emotional response to two different situations, one truly horrific and one not? We can imagine a situation in which a masked man “tased” one of the protesters when he is out jogging, bound his hands and legs with duct tape, gagged him, kicked him brutally, and dragged him into the brush, hissing insults and threats. Then he would know what “living in terror” actually means. Do you think for an instant that this would have any comparison with the “terror” he claimed to be facing every day? We know what any sensible, feeling human-being would feel under these imagined circumstances, and we can be sure that the protesters would share them—and that contradicts their claims. (What is at issue here is not the activity of protest, but the lies which accompanied it.)
Anti-abortion activists lie when they say that human life begins when an egg is fertilized by a sperm, and that abortion is the murder of a baby. We can examine this by another “thought experiment.” Imagine a situation in which they are invited to a lecture on the question of abortion. A microscope has been arranged to project an image on the screen, and they can see a human ovum in a drop of saline solution on a slide. Then a human sperm cell is introduced into the drop. They can watch fertilization taking place—and then the point of a very sharp needle is introduced into the field of view and the newly fertilized egg is torn apart. If the explanation of the events has been merely factual, if it hasn’t solicited any specific point of view, what would their responses be? We know what they would be if someone had placed a six-month old baby on the stage and then thrust a spear into her—pandemonium! Some would faint. Some would shriek. Some would burst into tears. Their emotions would testify to the fact that they really believe that a child is a human being, but would we see these same emotions if the egg were destroyed on the slide? Not at all! There might be shouted protests, proclamations of their ideology, but not the genuine shock that would accompany the murder of a human being. Their emotions (or lack of them) would surely tell us that they are lying, they do not, in fact, see the fertilized egg as a human being.
This is interesting because they always talk as if they believe their twaddle about abortion being murder and a fertilized egg being a human life. (Though some are actually willing to kill the Doctors who perform abortions!) They are hypocritical, but we should ask ourselves whether they are acting with the intent of deceiving others. Such hyperbole seldom has such intent. They have adopted an ideological position, a card-castle of words that promotes an idea, and all of the fuzzy implications of the idea have become sacrosanct. Nonetheless, they are hypocrites, and they began by lying to themselves.
Among the most obnoxious of such liars are the representatives of animal rights groups who say that the life of any animal is worth as much as the life of a human being. Which animals are they talking about, slugs, tape-worms, mosquitoes, cockroaches . . . or the thousands of tiny animals they kill each day as they walk to work or drive their cars? Oh, I see! Being biologically challenged, they really mean “mammals,” not “animals.” And their concern for mammals does not focus on the endangered species that really need our help, such as the Tasmanian Devil. But how deep does this professed belief run? We can show it with another “thought experiment.”
Imagine that the president of one such group has been strapped to a chair in front of two large glass chambers. In one is his wife—or daughter, or mother, or son, or even just a stranger off of the street—strapped to a chair. In the other is a cockroach, or rat, or dog, or fur seal pup. A clear panel in the center reveals a container holding a cyanide tablet poised above a transparent tube which spirals its way down to a point at which it branches, one branch leading to one chamber, one branch leading to the other. At the bottom of each branch is a beaker of acid. At the point where the tube branches is a flap which can divert the pill to either chamber while simultaneously sealing the other. This flap is presently positioned to deliver the pill into the chamber holding the human being. Above this contraption is a large clock that will down from ten seconds to zero.
He is told that when the buzzer sounds the pill will begin to roll down the tube, and the clock will begin counting off the remaining time. All he has to do to save the human being is to push the button under his hand. If he does, the cockroach, or rat, or dog, or fur seal pup will die. If he does not, the pill will fall into the acid, cyanide gas will be generated, and the human being will die. The buzzer sounds. The pill begins rolling down the tube. If he really means what he says—instead of just saying something because he loves to hear himself talk—he will be in an awful fix. How can he choose? The lives he has control over have equal value for him—or so he says. How can he save a human being at the expense of the cockroach, or rat, or dog, or fur seal? What is he to do?
Does anyone doubt that he would instantly push the button to save his loved one—or the stranger off of the street? If he doesn’t, he is criminally insane, not merely someone who has been talking rubbish because it makes him feel important. Of course he would push it. All of his talk about comparative value of an animal’s life is just that—talk. His emotional response would contradict his actions, and that would prove the lie.
Such lies are repeated by almost everyone who strongly adheres to a position, whether they are Conservatives, Liberals . . . whatever. These are not any better than the deliberate lies that are sometimes told to us by a greedy executive who has cheated investors, or a crooked used-car salesmen. In one sense they are much worse because they are broader in scope and deeply held. They probably couldn’t even be detected by a lie-detector.