We’ve heard a lot this week about lying.
The word was tossed around liberally during the debate of the three leading Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate in West Virginia. Evan Jenkins and Patrick Morrisey each accused the other of lying, and then Don Blankenship chimed in that he agreed with Jenkins and Morrisey—they both are lying.
President Trump’s veracity was called into question again this week when Rudy Giuliani said that Trump reimbursed his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, $130,000 that Cohen paid to porn actress Stormy Daniels to buy her silence about an alleged affair with Trump. As recently as last month the President said he had no knowledge of the payment.
So, somebody is lying.
Calling someone a liar is a serious matter because it questions a person’s character. Lying is a purposeful deception and the argument goes that if you are willing to lie about something, then why should you be believed about anything else?
But it’s not always that simple. John Mearsheimer is a political scientist who has studied deception (the opposite of truth) in public life. He has broken down deception into three categories—lying, concealment and spinning.
Lying is at the top of the deception ladder because it means saying something that simply is not true. If your spouse asks you if you went to work today and you say, “yes,” when in fact you played hooky and went to the baseball game, then you are lying.
Concealment is where you simply don’t reveal certain facts. You are not lying, but you are withholding information.
Then there is spinning. Mearsheimer says spinning is where you don’t tell an outright lie; you just arrange the facts in a story to present yourself or an issue you care about in the most positive light.
Mearsheimer says we all frequently engage in concealment and spinning and that there’s no way society could work without them. They make it possible for us to get along. Brutal honesty about everything would result only in constant antagonism and conflict.
But Mearsheimer says lying is a special kind of deception because it’s so completely opposite from the truth, and a relationship with truth is important to our well being. Dr. Jennifer Kunst writes in Psychology Today, “Mental health involves being able to face life in a realistic way—to take the good with the bad, the strengths with the limitations, the love with the hate, the joys with the disappointments.”
I suspect politicians sometimes struggle with the truth because it feels unnatural for them to disappoint people (voters) with cold facts. Perhaps they also think they are sparing our feelings and our comfortable illusions.
As Colonel Jessup famously said in the movie A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth!”
I have more faith in humanity than Colonel Jessup and many of our politicians. The truth may be painful in the short term, but it is liberating in the long run. Webs of deceit easily come unraveled and, as we have witnessed countless times, the cover up is usually worse than the crime.
As Mark Twain said, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”