Tuesday, June 09, 2015

A Meditation On Lying and Liars

This is sort of an addendum to an earlier post that looked at different roles that legislators can play in committee meetings.  Trying to figure out the specific roles any legislator plays is made difficult because they may be, are you ready? - lying.  I know.  Our responses to reports that politicians are lying ranges from "Oh how terrible!" to "What did you expect?" 

I don't want to accuse all politicians of regularly lying though.  The word "to lie" is sort of like the word 'blue.'  There are lots of different blues and there are lots of different lies.  But while artists and paint companies have come up with words to identify different shades of blue, our vocabulary of lies is impoverished.

We make the word the one word 'lie' cover a variety of different behaviors - some inexcusable and some so common that all of us engage in them.  In fact, if we didn't tell our sweethearts they look good, when they ask, we'd be considered rude.  

In her book Lying, Sisela Bok, asks readers to consider a world where no one told the truth.  One couldn't believe anything and would have to verify everything oneself.  But that would be impossible because you couldn't trust what people said or wrote.  Thus a system where people tell the truth benefits us all.  It makes our lives much easier.  But suppose you wanted to enjoy those benefits plus a little more.
"The fact that a system of truth-telling benefits you enormously doesn’t by itself justify your adhering to the Principle of Veracity. After all, if personal benefit is all that counts for you, then why not reap all the benefits that a system of truth-telling brings, and then reap a little bit more by lying for personal gain?
Of course, you couldn’t announce your policy to the public; it would have to remain your secret. You don’t want to undermine the practice of telling the truth. Otherwise you wouldn’t be able to gain anything from your lies. And you don’t want people to distrust you. A lie is advantageous only in circumstances where people will believe it – only where a practice of truth-telling generally prevails. Such a practice prevails only when most people are doing their part to support it – that is, when most people are telling the truth. The liar, then, wants to be a free rider. She wants others to do their part to maintain a system, while she skips doing her part. She reaps the benefits of the system without investing the reciprocal sacrifice of supporting it." [From Infed]

Let's say there's a continuum of liars:  from whoppers are normal to only tell little white lies. 

Whoppers Are  Normal   - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -  Only Little White Lies

Whoppers are things like, "I didn't have sexual intercourse with that woman."  Or “We found the weapons of mass destruction [in Iraq]. We found biological laboratories.”

Little white lies are more like, "Thanks for the tie, it's just what I wanted."  And there's a wide range in between.  

We all tend to think that others behave roughly like we do.  I'd argue that people on the whopper side of the continuum lie so often they think it's normal and that everyone lies.  And maybe they grew up in families where that was true.  Thus they don't trust anyone.  That's a little different from what Bok argues.  She's talking about a theoretical model where everyone benefits from truth-telling.  But I don't think people think this out so logically.  I suspect some liars know that most people are more truthful and take advantage of that. 

On the white lie end are people who wouldn't think of telling a lie any more egregious than answering a questions more positively than they actually feel. "It's delicious."  "I'll call you."   They believe in honesty, but also believe you can soften it a little to avoid upsetting people.  They are slow at recognizing big liars because it's hard to believe that people lie so blatantly. 

I tend to be on the white lie end.  For me, leaving out something important is akin to lying.  I'm not good at spotting liars, unless it's a situation I know well.  I don't notice the little body language tips.  I have to listen carefully to what they say and weigh the logic.  Only when people's stories are full of inconsistencies or at odds with what I know, do I start to consider the possibility that they are lying.

I've been reminded of the importance and the destructiveness of liars in the last week because we've been watching the old FX series Damages.  Glenn Close plays Patty Hewes, a high stakes lawyer, who in one episode actually asks a witness she's questioning, "When did you start lying?"  The witness protests she's not lying.  Patty Hewes goes on, "I was seven when I started lying regularly."  She's lies so shamelessly and to the people closest to her, people whose loyalty she demands.  We like to think that liars get found out and lose their positions of power.  But when enough of the other players are also liars, they don't out each other.  It's part of the game, even makes it more interesting for them, I guess - figuring out when someone is telling the truth and when they're lying.  Certainly in Damages, the lies pile up on each other.  Even when Patty Hughes starts to level with someone, she tends to add new lies.  (Oh, and yeah, it turns out that witness she was questioning was leaving out the cocaine addiction.)

It drives white lie folks crazy.  It's against our rules.  And while the liars may continue in their positions of power, there are costs.  In Patty Hewes' case, her 17 year old son despises her and causes her no end of frustration.

We've all seen these people lie and lie and lie, until they are caught.  Lance Armstrong insisted he hadn't doped.  Richard Nixon said he wasn't a crook.  Bill Clinton swore he didn't have sex with that woman.  Bernie Madoff lied $50 billion dollars from his friends and family even. If we look at a Tim Shipman's Atlantic Monthly article on Madoff, we can find some of the reasons people trusted him:
1.  susceptibility to his charm
2.  greed 
"charmer whose hedge fund ensnared wealthy Americans with the promise of record dividends."
3. he was seen by many investors as a tribe member
"what cuts deepest is Madoff’s betrayal of his fellow Jews"
Writer Tim Shipman goes on to ask how Madoff got away with it for so long.  Various people had raised questions starting as far back as the 1970s, but it wasn't until 2008 that he was finally busted.
"In 1995, [independent investigator, Harry Markopolos] sent the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the financial watchdog, a 17-page statement: “The World’s Largest Hedge Fund Is a Fraud”.
Two years later, the commission found no evidence of fraud after an investigation that seems to have involved little more than asking Madoff whether he was a crook, and accepting his answers.
SEC boss Christopher Cox last week denounced multiple failures at his agency and launched an internal investigation of the relationships between his officials and Madoff, including Eric Swanson, who had at one point been involved in monitoring Madoff’s firm and later married his niece, Shana Madoff"
So, we see a lot of deference to a well known, wealthy and connected man.  In Damages there are corrupt police officers and government officials who quash investigations or even set them up to intimidate enemies.

I'd also mention the movie Merchants of Doubt which we saw last night.  They delve into a group of 'scientists' who started by attacking tobacco industry critics.  They developed a tool chest for raising doubt when, in fact, no scientific doubt actually existed.  They'd attack the messenger, which is much easier than attacking the science.  Many of the tobacco companies'  'merchants of doubt' adapted these tools to protect other industries as they fought off regulation - like the fire retardant companies who had persuaded law makers to require putting tons of toxic chemicals in all sorts of products.  Then they moved on to fight climate change which, around 2008, the movie says, was accepted by key Republican politicians including George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, and others.  But they quickly back tracked when these merchants of doubt 'educated' on them.  Rep. Inglis, Republican from South Carolina, was educated at the polls when he started saying that climate change was real. 

Truth is not an important commodity for these merchants of doubt, whose sole goal is to postpone government action as long as possible while their client corporations made as much money as they can, usually at the expense of the environment and the health of Americans.  

I raise this issue of lying as one more issue to consider when you watch our legislature.  Who are today's merchants of doubt and which of our legislators are responding to their influence?  We know, for instance, that Americans for Prosperity have opened offices in many states, including Alaska, to fight various issues, including Medicaid expansion.  And we know that the Republican majorities in the Alaska House and Senate refuse to compromise on Medicaid expansion even though a majority of Alaskans want it passed, even though it will add health care for 40,000 Alaskans, and bring lots of federal dollars to Alaska.   Without the merchants of doubt deliberately poisoning the public discourse, this legislation would have passed long ago. 

Thinking about lying, about specific liars who famously lied, about how long we let liars get away with lying, about what evidence we need to finally realize they're lying, are all good exercises so that we can spot today's merchants of doubt and the politicians who help them block legislation everyone wants.

I'd add two more points to consider:

1.  Not all politicians lie.  There are honest politicians.  They may not always volunteer everything, but they are clearly much closer to the white lies end of the scale.  This is important.  I would wager that the current ice jam in the legislature is due to no more than 10-20% of the legislators.  But the merchants of doubt make sure they're in key positions.

2.  Some liars have lied so often, they believe their own lies.  Unless you know the facts, they would convince you too.  And they clearly have convinced enough of their constituents to get elected. 

That's the case of another character in Damages, Arthur Frobisher (played by Ted Danson).  He's a billionaire businessman who told all his employees to buy the company stock as he was selling his own, just before his company went bust.  Now they are Patty Hewes' clients as they try get their lives back.  Frobisher believes he's a good guy and he did nothing wrong.  His wiping out of his employees' retirement savings is just a blip on his screen.  Unfortunate.  He even tries to hire a ghost writer to tell his story to the world, because he's sure that if people just knew him, they would like him.  Possibly Madoff was a model for this character.  [I just checked and Wikipedia says that in season 3 Frobisher is based on the Madoff scandal.  We've only seen seasons one and two, but it was clear enough for me to make that connection already.][UPDATE 8:15pm:  Decided to start season 3 and it's not Frobisher, but a new character who's based on Madoff]

I suspect a lot of our worst lying legislators have convinced themselves they're good guys.  And they are so not. 

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