Em­brac­ing the truth

There’s al­ways much talk of mak­ing the world a bet­ter place – surely achiev­ing that goal can only be­gin and end with em­brac­ing the truth?

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - MOVIES -

THE ear­li­est lie I re­mem­ber telling to my par­ents po­ten­tially throws into ques­tion my love for an­i­mals: I pol­ished off a plate of food pre­pared for a party and then blamed our dog.

The poor dog looked guilty as sin when I pointed at him. Case closed.

( Fun fact for dog lovers: dogs are with­out a moral sense of right and wrong, so they don’t feel guilt. That dole­ful look they of­fer is a re­ac­tion to your tone, body lan­guage and en­ergy.)

In jus­ti­fy­ing the lie to my­self, I fig­ured that the dog doesn’t know what’s go­ing on, nor was my mother all that both­ered about a plate of food. Any­way, it was just a lit­tle white lie: no one suf­fered. There’s no harm in that, right? Peo­ple lie all the time, and for much worse rea­sons.

Re­cently, I fin­ished read­ing Ly­ing by Sam Har­ris, in which he ex­plores the con­cept of ly­ing, its im­pact, and whether there can ever be any jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for it. Ly­ing is an in­trigu­ing sub­ject, not least of all be­cause most of us would, I pre­sume, sug­gest it is, at best, an un­help­ful be­hav­iour – and yet it’s some­thing we’ve all done.

The act of ly­ing is some­thing we tend to find shame­ful, and to be called a liar can in­voke in­tense feel­ings of anger. To sug­gest that some­one is a liar is so dis­taste­ful to the point that, in Bri­tain’s House of Com­mons, it’s against the rules for par­lia­men­tar­i­ans to di­rectly call some­one a liar. Those who do so are usu­ally called on by the Speaker of the House to re­tract their re­marks. One fa­mous ex­am­ple came from vet­eran Labour MP Den­nis Skin­ner, who once re­marked to the House, “Half the Tory mem­bers op­po­site are crooks.” Af­ter the Speaker re­quested he re­tract his com­ments, he replied, “OK, half the Tory mem­bers aren’t crooks.”

Is there a case to be made for ly­ing? Scrip­tures from the main re­li­gions sug­gest not. To re­frain from ly­ing ap­pears in the Ten Com­mand­ments, and fea­tures in the five ba­sic moral pre­cepts of Bud­dhist prac­tice. In all the great religious tra­di­tions, ly­ing ap­pears in the same group as sex­ual mis­con­duct, steal­ing and mur­der. In this light, it’s dif­fi­cult to sug­gest an ar­gu­ment for its de­lib­er­ate and di­rect use.

In his book, Har­ris is un­equiv­o­cal in his ar­gu­ment against ly­ing, writ­ing, “Ly­ing is the royal road to chaos”.

But surely there are some jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for ly­ing? What about if a friend asks us whether we think they’re over­weight when show­ing off a new out­fit for the first time? Is it not kin­der to say, “Of course not”, thus spar­ing their feel­ings?

Ac­cord­ing to Har­ris, we do them a dis­ser­vice by of­fer­ing up this sort of white lie. “When we pre­sume to lie for the ben­e­fit of oth­ers, we have de­cided that we are the best judges of how much they should un­der­stand about their own lives – about how they ap­pear, their rep­u­ta­tions, or their prospects in the world.”

He has a point, and rightly de­scribes hon­est peo­ple as “a refuge”. In mak­ing an ef­fort to tell the truth, we not only show oth­ers that we re­spect their value and sense of dig­nity, but we also avoid taint­ing oth­er­wise healthy re­la­tion­ships with dis­trust and sus­pi­cion: in­tegrity and cred­i­bil­ity can take years to es­tab­lish and yet be de­stroyed so quickly, as politi­cians and ad­ver­tis­ers and even el­e­ments of the me­dia have dis­cov­ered to their cost.

Har­ris presents a strong case for hon­esty, de­scrib­ing it as “a gift we can give to oth­ers”.

“It is also a source of power and an en­gine of sim­plic­ity. Know­ing that we will at­tempt to tell the truth, what­ever the cir­cum­stances, leaves us with lit­tle to pre­pare for. We can sim­ply be our­selves.”

It ap­pears to be best for all in­volved that hon­esty is seen – and adopted – as the best pol­icy. Af­ter all, we fre­quently hear much talk of mak­ing the world a bet­ter place: surely achiev­ing that goal can only be­gin and end with em­brac­ing the truth?

Sandy Clarke has been a keen prac­ti­tioner of med­i­ta­tion and con­tem­pla­tion for the past 16 years, and be­lieves that the bet­ter we un­der­stand our­selves and our emo­tions, the more likely we are to cul­ti­vate a pos­i­tive out­look and sense of con­tent­ment.

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