Lying, Spinning, and our Common Life
They utter lies to each other;
with flattering lips and a double heart they speak. [Psalm 12:2]
This spring I’m teaching a class at Cranbrook for seniors called “Ethics: The Problem of Evil”. One of the pleasures of teaching this course, aside from daily engagement with high school students, is the opportunity to study Martin Buber’s book, Good and Evil. Buber was a great 20th century Jewish philosopher most famous for his book I and Thou about the dialogical relationship between the human being and God. Good and Evil is not as famous, but it is an equally profound investigation into the problem of lying in personal and social life.
My predecessor in teaching the class, recently retired Cranbrook Chaplain Dave Tidwell, chose the book because most students of philosophy would agree that lying is the foundation of what we would call evil. Before one can proceed to “evil” actions, one needs to deceive others, and that deception often leads to a general corruption of social and personal relationships and values.
Martin Buber holds that there are two qualities necessary for human beings to live together. The first he calls “well-wishing or the good will”. The second he calls ”loyalty or reliability”. Good will is necessary because, for society to function, we all must intend that each other flourish. Lying undermines good will. If I lie to you, I clearly want to seize an advantage over you. Similarly, reliability is essential because if we are to help each other mutually flourish we must be counted on to do what we say we’ll do. If I promise something and don’t deliver, my behavior corrodes the fabric of our common life.
Writing in 1952—what many would consider the “good old days”—Buber says that well-wishing and reliability “have disappeared so completely that the basis of [our] common life has been removed. The lie has taken the place, as a form of life, of human truth.” If Buber could have written that before the exponential explosion of technological ways of communicating (and manipulating messages), I wonder what he would say about truth and our common life in the 21st century.
As I have listened to the political rhetoric ramp up this winter—I’m speaking about speakers on both sides of the aisle—I have become increasingly concerned that most of what passes for political discourse today is in fact spin. It’s gotten so bad that I’ve stopped listening even to the people I agree with. I know when most political speakers open their mouths they are not going to say anything surprisingly truthful. They are going to use the occasion to achieve an advantage, largely by massaging the facts in their interest. In doing so, they undermine both underpinnings of our common life, good will and reliability.
Obviously mendacious and meretricious political rhetoric is not new. But what is new is our widespread unquestioning acceptance of it. We do not seem to want a serious conversation enough to demand it. We do not subject untrue speech to real criticism. We appear content to remain comfortably ensconced in our familiar and safe ideologies.
The contemporary ethicist, Sissela Bok, says, “A society whose members are unable to distinguish truthful messages from deceptive ones, would collapse. But before such a general collapse, individual choice and survival would be imperiled.”Bad political speech is as dangerous as bad personal speech. Clearly we cannot give up either personal or political speech. But we can, both as private people and as citizens, commit ourselves to truth-telling as a fundamental value of what it means to be human.
“The lie,” says Buber, “is the specific evil which man has introduced into nature.” I am not naïve. I know that, because we are human, we will always lie and be lied to. Human self-interest will always make lying a seemingly less costly choice when figuring moral equations. But real self-interest should also prompt each of us to realize the long-term, hidden costs inherent in lying. Every time we lie, we corrode the fabric of our common life. And if that fabric finally disintegrates, there is no safe hiding place left for anyone.
The truth is not always easy, but it is ultimately our friend. Jesus knew that. So did Martin Buber. Here’s hoping all of us can come to see that, too.