In praise of liars
It’s an odd thing, isn’t it, that in our culture we condemn, sanction and punish dishonesty in our children, yet among adults dishonesty is revered, rewarded, highly celebrated and lucrative? Children are taught to be truthful. In America the folk story of young George Washington who couldn’t tell a lie after chopping down his father’s cherry tree is still told. But in the adult world we heap praise and accolades upon successful professional liars - actors and novelists especially. We give them lots of money to do what they do then if they succeed we give them golden statuettes and medals.
Novels are fiction, which means that they are untrue. They are elaborate, long lies for entertainment. We are entertained by story telling, and story telling is a more important role of language than mere communication of knowledge or data. In Japan the Canadian novel Anne of Green Gables used to be very popular. Not so much nowadays, perhaps, but there is a whole generation of Japanese women still living for whom the story of farm girl Anne Shirley was so highly regarded that I think many lost sight of the fact that it was fiction. The fact that Prince Edward Island maintains a Green Gables farm house for tourists to visit might contribute to confusion.
The law guarantees us freedom of speech, but don’t be dumb enough actually to try it!
Actors make their livings by fraudulently playing at being people they are not. Of course actors make no claim to authenticity. They do not hide the fact that they are playing at being something or someone they are not as a job. (Ambitious actors call it “art.”) But among the general public I feel that message is lost or obscured. We see it when we witness people forgetting that the actors are separate from the characters they play.
“Oh, I don’t like Michael Douglas because he always plays those Prince of Darkness roles.” Isn’t there some confusion there between the actor and the characters he plays?
I kind of feel sorry for British actor Tom Felton, who plays the despicable Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films. When my daughter was younger and a fan of the films when they were still fresh I often reminder her that although Draco Malfoy is terrible the actor Tom Felton is probably a perfectly nice man.
In the past the acting profession was condemned for precisely this purpose: it was portraying lies. It was worse for women in the theater than for men as “actress” was once synonymous with “prostitute.”
Too often people are prone to believe falsehoods as they deem many of the real facts of life too unbelievable to be true. That makes the point that not only do people want to believe something, they also want to believe in something (which is not the same thing). Too often that something turns out to be anything at all. I don’t mean that people are naturally gullible, although one might make such a case. And neither do I mean that people believe things because liars simply tell them what they want to hear. People don’t know what they want to hear so much as they know what they do not want to hear. Most people don’t know the difference between the true and the false, the credible and the incredible, so they absorb anything spontaneously and then make up a context along the way to make sense of it. No context is as convincing as a self-generated context.
I recognize, however, the real merits to scrupulous honesty. First, one loses trust if one’s dishonesty is discovered, and that could evolve into unacceptable social consequences. One might live happily being the object of a little mistrust only, but not a lot. Second, consistent honesty is simply easier. Telling lies requires too much maintenance. One has to remember what lies one told to whom and be careful to keep more than one fiction going simultaneously so that one does not conflict with another. Often it’s just not worth it. Honesty just saves a lot of energy, so it’s simpler.
But at the same time scrupulous honesty could spell the end of civilization, because in order to maintain social order and harmony we must pretend every day with people we despise - and there are many of those. The law guarantees us freedom of speech, but don’t be dumb enough actually to try it!