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King: Nature of a lie based on perception

POSTED: January 3, 2008 5:02 a.m.

If a person believes he or she is being truthful, a false statement does not become true, but is it a lie? The individual may have been misinformed. The facts may have been distorted or perhaps unknown at the time, but there is another possibility.

The speaker may have deluded himself. Denial and self- delusion are behind many of the world’s must dangerous lies, dangerous because others readily accept them due to their own delusions.

“We don’t have homosexuality in Iran.” — Mahnoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran.

“America does not torture.” — President Bush.

“I did not have sex with that woman.” — Bill Clinton, former president of the U.S.

Were these men lying? Not exactly. In Iran homosexuals are persecuted, even killed. Thus Iran is “free” from homosexuality.

In the United States, the president has declared that no amount of pain is “torture” if it doesn’t cause organ failure or death. Thus American doesn’t torture. And as for our boy Bill, if it ain’t the missionary position, it ain’t sex.

All these men have loyal followers willing to accept these and other lies because they mirror their own worldview. People tend to believe what they want to believe, and politicians tend to give people what they want, so “good” politicians, the kind who get elected or otherwise obtain power, learn how to lie convincingly. The best way to do it is to believe your own story.

According to David Livingstone Smith, author of “Why We Lie,” deception is in our genes. Animals do it when they employ camouflage or mimicry to fool a predator. Nonverbal lying has been observed in primates when one monkey creates an opportunity to steal from another by signaling danger when there is none.

Humans have lied from the very beginning, and the individual who does it well develops an advantage that can be passed on from generation to generation. At the same time, however, humanity has also evolved some pretty good “BS” detectors. This is where self-deception comes in. Let me tell you a story.

Back in the 1950’s when my husband and I were dating, we had a friend who was what in those days we called a “make-out artist.” George dated one good-looking girl after another and boasted to the boys of his conquests. The secret of his success was simple: he was always in love.

We sometimes double-dated and would overhear whispered conversations with his latest love: “I’ve never met a girl like you. I love you. I want to marry you.”

This was often a girl he had just met, but he said it with complete conviction. He was in love, and for the short time it lasted, he was totally sincere.

It was always the girl who broke it off, but by that time George was in love with someone else and completely focused on this next romance, forgetting that two weeks ago he was declaring undying love for another.

His was a relatively harmless form of self-deception, but when the deceiver is peddling a false cure for cancer, negotiating a questionable loan, or leading a nation, self-delusion is dangerous.

My background is in cultural anthropology. I am perfectly willing to consider Ahmadinejad’s statements from a cultural standpoint, but I don’t accept them as true. I am not Iranian. I am not Muslim, and I have no reason to delude myself about the conditions in Iran today.

I would like to believe my own president because I am an American. I’m proud of our nation, and I support our young men and women at home and abroad; but unfortunately, I don’t believe him.

Very very few of Mr. Bush’s statements about U.S. foreign policy and U.S. geopolitical intentions have proved to be true. I do, however, believe that he is sincere. Bush believes his own words, and that’s why he has been so effective as a leader.

People don’t like to be lied to, and most people have developed some pretty good ways to detect mendacity; but our “BS” detectors often fail us when we have an emotional reason to believe something other than the truth.

When it is our own president, our own political party, our own church, our own family, or our own culture, we want to believe, and thus we are ready, willing, and able to deceive the most important part of the intellectual equation, our self.

Joan King lives in Sautee.



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