Thursday, January 14, 2010

lies get a bad rap

After reading my son's homework assignment about an ethical dilemma he had faced -- and being delighted by it -- I found myself thinking that I would like to tell him something I considered important: Lies get a bum rap.

I thought of this in terms of writing, but I imagine it holds true elsewhere as well.

My thinking was something like this: All writing purports to convey experience and yet words are not capable of conveying experience. Nevertheless, there is a long-standing habit -- supported by school studies and human intercourse -- of supposing that what anyone might read or write or thereby know is "the truth." The links in the chain are strong and compelling: You tell me "the truth" of some experience and I assume that I am now in possession of "the truth."

But words cannot convey "the truth." And in this sense, they are lies. Words convey a description of the truth, just like lies. But the habit of assuming we have gleaned "the truth" from the Bible or Tripitaka or lecture series or analysis is very strong, probably in part because the longing for security and control is very strong. "I understand" has a consoling ring. It is like a warm blanket on a cold night. The only trouble with warm blankets, of course, is that people wake up at 3 a.m. and find their feet sticking out ... freezing.

To the extent that anyone might buy into this line of thinking, I imagine another factor needs to be added -- the assumption that the truth, whatever it may may mean, is good, and lies, whatever that may mean, are bad. Courtrooms underline such thinking by asking witnesses to "swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God." Truth is important and good. Lies are important and bad.

The analytical mind, on agreeing to the proposition that words cannot convey experience and are thus lies, may fidget and scurry into the presumption that a skeptical and somewhat curmudgeonly approach is best: It's all a pack of lies and I do not want to be a liar; I want to know and tell the "whole truth, so help me God."

But standing aloof from human intercourse, on or off the written page, is not possible and so, perhaps, the recognition dawns: What is called the truth and what is called lies are a package deal; they are more closely entwined than water and wetness ...impassioned lovers beneath a starry sky. The truth relies on lies for its good name just as lies rely on truth for their bad name.

What is called the truth and what is called a lie deserve a gentler approach, I would argue. Perhaps, without waxing moralistic, the question needs to be asked, "Of what truth is this lie and example?" or "Of what lie is this truth an example?"

Words can't tell the truth. It's just a fact.

Lies don't tell the truth. It's just a fact.

Facts don't require red-hot distinctions. They are just facts.

So a gentler approach is warranted when it comes to the truths we may adore and the lies we may hate. Coming down hard on lies is just a way of elevating the truth. But what is the truth?

Gently ... if the words can't tell the truth and lies can't either ... what can tell the truth?

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