A quick aside: One of my Wise Old Sayings I Just Made Up is:
“Lies are camouflage for predators, protective coloration for the weak.”
Meaning I separate lies into two broad categories, based on the relative power of the entities involved. In other words, though I have strong feelings about not telling lies – I try to NEVER do it (which doesn’t mean I’ll answer every question asked; some of my shit is none of your business, or anyone’s) – if armed brownshirts came to my door tomorrow and asked me if I was hiding Jews in my attic, I would instantly and convincingly lie my head off, earnestly telling them how much I loved the Fatherland but thinking behind my totally-innocent smile “Screw you, Nazi jackwagons.”
So when I talk about lies here, I don’t totally exempt the “protective coloration for the weak” lies (and I certainly don’t think equals should ever lie to each other), but I’m mainly focused on the ones told by predators.
Back to it:
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the subject of lies. In my estimation, we live in this massive sea of lies, but we’re so used to it we think it’s normal. Most of the time, we aren’t even aware of it.
Once you start paying attention, though, once you decide that living in a sea of lies is ABNORMAL, you really do start to notice. You stay in this perpetually astonished state, that so very many lies are sailed out at you, from a thousand different directions, in just about every moment of your day.
Give you an example:
I rented a Toyota Corolla a few months back when I drove up to Ottawa to Eschaton 2012. I observed that the speedometer was calibrated up to 150 mph. I didn’t push it, but I’d be surprised if the car would go much beyond 90 or 100.
So why did it say 150 on the speedometer? Not for me. My guess is that it was for this one person only – the guy looking at the car on the showroom floor. He’d look at it and go “Wow, 150 on the speedo! This is totally a powerful car!”
So there’s a bit of manipulative psychology – a little bit of up-yours – deliberately designed into the car, and only for that one brief moment. After you’ve bought it, you’d discover that the 150 was a lie, but hey, you would have bought it already. It’s not like you can take it back.
I can just bet that, reading this right now, most of you are thinking some version of “What’s the big deal? Everybody knows stuff like that goes on, and we all pretty much make allowances for it.”
But do we really? The fact that Toyota, a fairly reputable car manufacturer, sees fit to do it means they think it works. That we are NOT, in fact, making allowances for it, and successfully resisting the lies. That we’re buying the cars because we believe the lies.
(I don’t mean to sound like I’m picking on Toyota. I’ve owned several Toyotas, and I was buying their long-lasting trucks at a time when American automakers were screwing over buyers with 70,000-mile heaps of junk.)
I have to wonder, what would life be like if there weren’t so many lies in every moment of the day?
Regarding lies, there are three things going on in our current cultural surround, and all of them seem important to me.
A) One is, the auto manufacturer – and the thousand other purveyors of lies – believe it’s okay to manipulate you with lies.
Sure, there’s no guarantee the thing will work on any specific “you,” but on you-in-a-statistical-sense, it will almost certainly work. Meaning, no one person is guaranteed to fall for it, but there are enough people out there in the 300-million-strong U.S. market who WILL fall for it, just enough to buy a goodly number of Toyota Corollas.
The point is, succeed or fail, Toyota thinks it’s okay to TRY. To make the effort to lie to you in this small way in order to achieve an end result that benefits them.
And as far as society is concerned, it’s perfectly legal, perfectly justifable, and you-the-ordinary-little-fish are on your own. In the social fish tank in which we all swim, these multi-billion-dollar sharks can prey on you, and it’s okay. It’s not like they’re killing you, after all, it’s just a little fudging of the truth. And no one person gets hurt all that much. (You know, unless they’re COMPLETE idiots, and that’s pretty much their own fault.)
B) The second thing is that WE think it’s normal. The whole of our public lives (and for many of us, our privates lives) is predicated on the expectation of lies.
Really, in the case of Toyota and company, it’s no big thing. It’s just business. What would advertising be like if you couldn’t exaggerate, right? You have to bend the truth a LITTLE bit, or nobody would notice you or your product.
And hey, as far as politicians are concerned, you couldn’t have a political campaign without a few wowsers getting tossed out, right? After all, you can’t make everybody happy, so campaigning is the art of bending the truth so that each group likes you as much as possible, dislikes you as little as possible.
So, little-fishy consumer, you face the big-fishy corporations and big-fishy politicians and you take your chances. That’s just the way life is. Learning to see and deal with lies is part of growing up, y’know?
And hey, unless you can PROVE they’re lying to you, and PROVE that it’s hurting you directly, there’s nothing to be done. Because of “innocent until proven guilty,” they get the benefit of any doubt.
C) The third thing is this seemingly mundane but really rather amazing fact: If you don’t know what’s true in the world around you, you cannot reason about the world around you.
Let me repeat that:
IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT’S TRUE, YOU CAN’T REASON.
Seriously, if you don’t have any solid facts in your head, the mental process that might otherwise be labeled “reasoning” is anything but. You might proceed with the same mental gymnastics that serves everybody else as reasoning, but if you “know” that Toyota is totally trustworthy and totally on your side, or you “know” that George W. Bush is absolutely honest, absolutely brilliant, and absolutely patriotic, you’re going to get some less-than-useful results in your final estimation.
Think about the freaky reverse-reasoning built into some of our familiar religions. That death brings Life Eternal, or that the end of civilization would be a massively good thing. There are people who believe it utterly. They would fight you if you tried to tell them different.
Think about the utterly transparent lies and manipulations of FOX News, and the Tea Party founders. There’s this fantastically obvious foundational aspect of it all, that people can be convinced to vote against their own interests, and in favor of the interests of distant billionaires. Because of the lies fed to them daily, hourly, the victims are literally unable to understand their own needs, so much so that a true friend who tried to tell them they were being savagely manipulated, and to their own real detriment, would be branded a hater of all things good and right and American.
But even aside from those obvious examples, society-wide, we think lies are so normal that we barely protest them. If and only if a lie affects us in a directly negative way do we bother even to become interested. Otherwise, we seem to feel that it’s nothing we should get involved in.
But along that path we neglect to realize that an atmosphere of the casual acceptance of lies has a pervasive effect on society itself.
That effect, in my estimation, is deeply profound.
Yet at the same time, it’s almost invisible. It’s there, affecting every aspect of our lives – if you don’t know what’s true, you can’t reason, and if your entire society doesn’t know what’s true, isn’t allowed to know what’s true, you have an entire society with a crucially crippled ability to operate in the real world – but it is immensely hard to see because our entire society, the over-culture in which we all live, evolved within that condition.
Lies are part of the nutrient broth in which our culture has grown, and this has been the case for thousands of years.
Entertain these ideas for a moment:
1) That every lie told to you has some effect on you, however small.
2) That there are so many lies out there that you have to fight, constantly, to know what’s true – a battle that not only taxes and tires you, but that keeps you in a condition of relative uncertainty and constant low-level stress (that might not even be all that low-level).
3) That an atmosphere of lies in society has an effect on society, that that echoes back into your private life as well.
4) That it doesn’t have to be that way.
Suppose you, little fishy, were backstopped by a culture that had a great deal less tolerance for lies. Suppose there were 20 million of you, or 50 million of you, or a billion of you, and you all KNEW, as part of your deepest sense of self and community, that lies were not okay. That certain lies were predatory. That you deserved better. And that you simply did not have to stand for being lied to by the sharks, however much they might think they had the right.
Suppose you walked out every morning with the basement-level certainty that in every business and political dealing – as strong in your mind as the feelings Amish men have about beards, or as Muslims have about pork – “You damned well DON’T lie to me and my people. There will be a reckoning if you do.”
It doesn’t matter right this instant that it’s hard to think about how this ideal might be carried out in real life. We’re so not-used to entertaining the idea of a low-lie society that it’s tough to imagine how to bring it about, or enforce it. But can you at least imagine that life might be a little bit better for you, and the people you love, if the liars had to be more careful?
No, I can’t see the details just yet. I’m hoping that once the idea of Beta Culture catches on with people (if it does), that once a critical mass of people start thinking about it in earnest, mechanisms can be discovered or invented that will make the thing possible.
If nothing else, if millions of us someday simply decide we no longer have to put up with lies, I have to believe it will make a profound difference.