Have we become a culture of liars?

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Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

Human beings, as anyone who has been alive longer than 10 minutes can tell you, have a number of blind spots.

As a matter of physiological fact, we see the entire world through one big, biological blind spot.

We think we are viewing the world as it is when in fact our optical machinery is performing a series of minor miracles. What we really see is upside down and backwards- with a big hole right in the middle. Our brains, those crowning jewels of human biology, helpfully fills in that hole based on contextual clues and it does this so fast we don’t even notice.

This makes part of what we see everyday a kind-of hallucination. Our brains produce other helpful augmented realities as well.

The earth is spinning, but we can’t feel it. The next time you talk to someone, or look in a mirror, you might notice a relatively still, relaxed, normal face. In fact, your head is constantly moving around, like a bobblehead. With a special video recording, we can easily spot the subtle blushes, flushes, wobbles and micro-movements caused by every breath, every heartbeat.

Considering how clueless we are, it would be the better part of wisdom to more carefully consider our actions. But then again, if we were capable of more carefully considering our actions, we wouldn’t be so clueless.

As it is, we commit any number of logical fallacies, all unknowing. Even when we learn them, and learn to spot them, it doesn’t always make us better at recognizing our own.

It’s what makes otherwise normal, successful people- like Jussie Smollett- do things that don’t make any sense and seem out of character.

Part of the problem is our addiction to rationalizations- or more specifically, to doing what we want, whatever we want, based on our emotions- craving, desire, anger- then rationalizing it after the fact using our twin superpowers of creativity and intelligence.

In other words, we lie to ourselves…all the time. Artfully and convincingly. Smollett is probably more exceptional at this than most, considering the job of an actor is to realistically fake emotions.

There are three distinct levels of lying and human beings excel at all of them in the modern age, and probably always have.

First-level lying is lying to other people.

People lie to each other all the time, for all sorts of reasons. They should stop, first and foremost, because this type of low-level lying leads to the worse types, among other consequences.

“Character,” as Heraclitus observed two thousand years ago, “is destiny.”

And, as author Sam Harris postulated in his highly-readable work “Lying,” liars aren’t getting away with it as often as they think they are. They certainly aren’t getting away with it 100% of the time. Not even close.

The consequences of getting caught- as Jussie Smollett has so memorably demonstrated- can be dire.

When you look back on the times you’ve lied- “The dog ate my homework,” “My car broke down,” and “No, officer; I wasn’t speeding,”- consider how many times you were likely caught and the person to whom you lied was too polite to say so.

Second-level lying is lying to yourself.

Upon reading this, several examples of your acquaintance might present themselves, but “I don’t lie to myself,” is the best example of second-level lying.

People lie to themselves all the time without meaning to, without even knowing it. There are little lies- “I can make it in time,” and “I’ll exercise tomorrow.” And bigger lies; “I can’t _______ because ________.”

We tell ourselves lies about the future; pretending to know it when we don’t, pretending we don’t know it when we do.

We certainly lie to ourselves about the past.

Human memory is a funny thing. It isn’t like a video recording at all. Every time you recall a memory- say, your childhood home- your brain doesn’t replay footage of that memory.

Your brain pulls up image after image, home movie after home movie. When you recall your childhood home, you are recalling your last memory of your childhood home more than anything.

Observation, memory, recall; these are not strong points for most people, one reason witness testimony can be so unreliable.

Jussie Smollett must have been doing a great deal of second-level lying. He had to be able to justify, in his own mind, what he was doing. Racism and homophobia certainly exist; Smollett probably had to deal with other incidents in his life.

He might have told himself that drawing attention to and raising public awareness of a very serious issue was doing the LGBTQ+ and African-American communities a favor. That it might happen to benefit his career and raise his profile wasn’t the reason he used to convince himself.

No one thinks they’re the bad guys, not even former members of PolPot’s infamous Khmer Rouge; they rationalize. They don’t tell themselves “I committed genocide because I’m a terrible person”; they tell themselves, “We only killed the bad people.

Lie to yourself long enough and you’ll believe anything.

Third-level lying is living a lie.

Obviously this type of lying takes a great deal of the other two, but it also involves taking a bit of a break from reality.

The unfortunates who dive too deeply into this rabbit hole often have much bigger mental health challenges, but at the heart of it all is self-deception, denial, and delusion.

They have a problem coping with reality. Oftentimes, as author Russell Brand pointed out in his book on the subject of addiction, people who have a problem coping with reality are prone to drug addiction.

Someone in the grips of drug addiction is an illustration of the three levels of lying. The person must lie to others to conceal the extent of their habit; they also must lie to themselves as their life deteriorates around them.

“Nothing is wrong, I’m fine,” is the siren song of this fell trap.

Those suffering from addiction become adept at living a lie; they adopt a willful blindness to their life situation, however desperate it becomes. On the verge of homelessness, alone, sick, suffering, the addicted person often won’t admit it, even to themselves.

They maintain an outward front and project it inward. They are like an actor playing a role who becomes so engrossed in the role, they forget who they really are underneath.

There is a reason admitting you have a problem is considered by addiction counselors the first step towards recovery. To even begin to recover, the addicted person must confront the reality of their habit; usually the fact that it is killing them and hurting the people they love.

Smollett is languishing on the third-level of his lies, repeating the mantra of unrepentant liars everywhere; “It wasn’t me.”

But only the truth can set him free. And only a cultural commitment to truth and honesty will prevent others from following in his infamous footsteps.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)