James Bass

James Bass

Everybody lies, even you.

When I taught English, one of the topics I’d ask my students to write about was a lie that they have told.

It never failed that I’d have one or two students who told me they’d never told a lie, to which I’d usually tell them, “You’re lying!”

I’m not lying either, there are statistics to prove it. According to Forbes, “honest people” lie as much as twice a day while “prolific liars” tell as many as six per day. The point of the assignment wasn’t to call them out because like I said, everyone lies at one time or another. Before beginning the assignment, I would ask them to read Mark Twain’s short essay, “On The Decay of the Art of Lying.”

Twain is attributed with the quote, “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Without going into detail, he’s right. Looking at statistical probability, remember always that correlation does not mean causation. In other words, just because it’s likely something may happen, it does not mean it will. And people bend statistics all the time to give you favorable outcomes.

By the way, I’m lying, that’s not Twain’s quote. It’s been misattributed to him; in fact, Benjamin Disraeli said it, but we’ll believe anything if it sounds right. Won’t we?

Back to my students. Not only did they lie – some of their lies bordered on criminal, while some were just downright mean, and some were arguably funny. It was a teachable moment and they enjoyed it.

If you are not familiar with Twain’s sense of humor, then the title of his essay may sound a bit misleading. He is not encouraging an immoral act. What my students gleaned from Twain’s essay is that if you’re going to lie, make it a good one. Put some effort into it and at least make it entertaining.

The late country comic Jerry Clower once told a story of his fabled nephew, Newgene Ledbetter whom he labeled “the lyinist youngin’ what ever lived.” As the story goes, the Ledbetters’ neighbor had a big sheep dog, and in the summer, they sheared his hair off except of a small patch on his tail and a ring around his neck. One particular day, Newgene came in screaming that there was a lion in the yard. His father, “Uncle Versie,” knowing it was the dog, accused Newgene of lying and sent him to his room with the instructions, “You go and pray to the Lord about lyin’ and don’t you come back until The Lord speaks to you!” A little while later, Newgene entered the living room, and Versie asked him if the Lord had spoken to him. Newgene replied, “Yes sir. The Lord told me the first time he seen that dog, he thought it was a lion too!”

Twain’s words are as relevant today as they were when he wrote them in 1882. “A half-truth is the most cowardly of lies,” Twain said. Today he might have said, “There’s lies, damn lies, and then there’s the news.”

In this era of “fake news” and “fact checking,” fabrications and half-truths are commonplace. The presumption is that we’re not all being told the truth. Our society has become comfortable with lies, and we’ve come to expect them.

In Twain’s estimation, lies always have been and they always will be, so we shouldn’t really be surprised. The author would probably chuckle if he were here today, smart phone in hand and social media account open to make his point.

“Observe, I do not mean to suggest that the custom of lying has suffered any decay or interruption,—no, for the Lie, as a Virtue, a Principle, is eternal; the Lie, as a recreation, a solace, a refuge in time of need, the fourth Grace, the tenth Muse, man’s best and surest friend, is immortal, and cannot perish from the earth…”

But lying is bad. It certainly is when its purpose is to be dishonest or hurtful. It’s the foundation of mistrust. Something my dad always said to me was “Don’t ever lie to me and I will never lie to you, and we’ll always know where we stand with each other.” It was one of the greatest lessons he taught me.

However, I’m not here to defend virtue, and I’m sure my old man would agree with Twain. Some people are going to lie anyway, and sometimes telling a fib is a must. Here’s Twain’s take on it.

“Lying is universal—we all do it; we all must do it. Therefore, the wise thing is for us is diligently to train ourselves to lie thoughtfully, judiciously; to lie with a good object, and not an evil one; to lie for others’ advantage, and not our own; to lie healingly, charitably, humanely, not cruelly, hurtfully, maliciously; to lie gracefully and graciously, not awkwardly and clumsily; to lie firmly, frankly, squarely, with head erect, not haltingly, tortuously, with pusillanimous mien, as being ashamed of our high calling.”

Are you still feeling a bit indignant about my accusation? Here’s a test. If your dear, sweet mother asks if the frumpy dress she’s loved for 30 years still looks good on her, what are you going to say? What about when your wife asks, “Does this make me look fat?” I rest my case.

Psychology Today in a 2017 article titled “The Art of The Lie,” suggests that we lie because we are afraid of what others may think of us or because we are ashamed. Lying is a coping mechanism for dealing with those fears. And sometimes, people lie because they want to impress you. There are all kinds of reasons why people feel it’s ok to lie.

We lie when we round up our billable hours and taxes, we claim higher losses on our insurance claims, recommend unnecessary treatments and so on. In other words, it’s the big lies most of us avoid, but we seem to be fine with “little white lies,” so long as we get to judge how badly the outcome of the lie will be and whom it will affect.

I mentioned statistics earlier. Statisticians have a term called inter-rater reliability, and what that means here is this: if you ask 10 people if they lie, chances are all of them will say no. That’s probably why the 18th century writer and poet Oliver Goldsmith said, “Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no fibs.

James Bass is the director of the Givens Performing Arts Center.