Cost of Mendacity
February 26th, 2017
Sermon for First Unitarian Society of Denver by Rev. Mike Morran
Mendacity… On the off chance that the word is not familiar to you, mendacity is untruthfulness, deceit, deception, prevarication, fraud, falsification, lying. Mendacity is nothing new of course. In 1862, the New York Times published an editorial entitled The Age Of Mendacity, which read, in part; “Was there ever seen, since the world began, so monstrous a crop of falsehood as have sprung up out of the present rebellion? It would seem as if the father of lies himself had come down in power, finding his especial home, of course, in that region where the "sum of villainies" has brought forth its appropriate yield of treason and other crimes, but not, by any means, confining his operations to that quarter.”
The unnamed author of that editorial is referring to the Confederacy, but I think many of us experience a similar sentiment when we think about the current president and his administration. This is an administration which not only lies, regularly and insistently, but apparently with some perverse enjoyment of mendacity! An administration which not only instigates lies of its own, but seeks out other lies which agree with its goals, and creates policies affecting millions of people based on those lies.
Tilting at windmills as the old phrase goes, but this time armed, not with a flimsy pretense of a jousting pole, but with a confusing cloud of poisonous lies that spreads out on the wind, troubling everything they touch.
And the stakes are high. No one I’ve seen has said it better than Robert Freeman; ”…in an open society it is the consent of the governed that is required to sustain major policy initiatives. A government can either earn that consent, or it must forfeit the essence of its democracy. If lying becomes its essential modus operandi, a nation ceases to be a democracy. Rather, it becomes a criminal conspiracy of self-interested insiders donning the trappings of democracy in order to gull the credulous.”
Now believe it or not, this is not a sermon about politics or Donald Trump. And to be perfectly honest, I’ve really struggled to have this not be a rant about Donald Trump. Because although that’s what’s in my heart right now, rants typically do not make for good sermons.
This is a sermon about the cost of mendacity; the mental, emotional, relational, psychic, and spiritual costs of living in a world saturated by mendacity. And hopefully what to do about it. Bertrand Russell once said, “One of the chief obstacles to intelligence is credulity, and credulity could be enormously diminished by instructions as to the prevalent forms of mendacity.” Some of which we are going to explore.
We all lie. All of us. No exceptions. There are reliable studies that show most of us lie at least a little, at least a couple of times every day of our lives. We lie for reasons of social expectations, like when we say; “Oh, I’m fine,” even when everything is not fine at all. We lie to protect people’s feelings, like when we complement someone’s outfit even though we might think they’re trying too hard. Or when we tell someone we’ve been thinking about them when in fact we haven’t at all.
We lie to protect ourselves from those who might use the truth against us, or take what we say out of context. We lie when we believe we might be the distinct minority in some social situation, or when we desire to simply keep the peace in some potentially volatile conversation. There are lies of omission, exaggeration, distortion, denial, gas-lighting, and minimization. We lie because there are times when to lie is simply easier than telling the truth. So many variations of lying. It probably says something significant that just like Eskimos are said to have fifty different words for snow, modern English has so many different ways to refer to lies, lying, and liars.
Sam Harris uses a rhetorical example of standing on the sidewalk in front of 1600 Pennsylvania in Washington D.C., calling the FaceBook offices and saying, “This is Sam Harris at the White House. I’d like to speak with Mark Zuckerburg.” Is that technically a lie?
Given a few minutes, most of us could come up with a dozen rationalizations. “Well, it’s almost true.” “It could be true.” “There’ll be no harm done.” “What they don’t know won’t hurt them.” “Everybody does it.” And many more.
And sometimes, this is the truth, sometimes there are other considerations more important than the truth. Like healing a relationship. Or healing a nation. I think about Hillary Clinton’s wise and profoundly gracious concession speech after the election. I’m not sure she personally believed a word she said, but it was absolutely the right thing to do.
Let’s look a little closer at the relationship between the deceiver and the deceived. In her landmark book Lying, philosopher Sissela Bok makes a case for the connection between lying and violence. (Quote) Deceit and violence - these are the two forms of deliberate assault on human beings. Both can coerce people into acting against their will. Most harm that can befall victims through violence can come to them also through deceit. But deceit controls more subtly, for it works on belief as well as action.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the intention behind a lie is almost always to limit or manipulate the choices that the other person believes are available to them. Confusing issues, generalizing, deflecting, obfuscation, threatening, playing on fears... there are an infinite number of methods, but the object is to limit or manipulate the choices the other person believes are available. And in this way, lies are an attempt to restrict someone else’s freedom.
And don’t liars count on a double standard(?), reserving for themselves the luxury of being dishonest, counting on the other person to maintain a basic commitment of truthfulness, the very standard that the liar has just transgressed!
Let’s look at little closer at some of the effects of mendacity. Those who learn they’ve been lied to become resentful and suspicious, become wary of new information. There is some wonderful work out there showing how human beings and human brains evolved to see patterns and make judgements. We are literally wired to believe stuff. We do this so well that we will perceive patterns even where none exist, sometimes we believe things even against all the evidence.
So when we discover we’ve been duped, it’s more than a personal betrayal. It messes with our sense of reality, our sense of identity, our belief that we can perceive what’s real and not real. If this has been done to us, even if the liar has done it “for our own good,” it will still erode relationships in ways very difficult to recover from.
And this is not about politics but I’ll use Bill Clinton as an example. At some level, Bill knows he’s a liar and that his personal integrity is forever compromised. Whatever justifications he uses for what he did, he must forever look with different eyes on those he has deceived, and know that he has significantly hampered the intimacy he might ever share with anyone who knows of his deception.
And of course people make mistakes, and forgiveness is real, and there will always be painful moments, and misunderstandings, and all the other foibles of people in close proximity over time, but I would hold up to you that love and intimacy are one of the greatest gifts we are given in this life, and there is no real intimacy with other human beings without a deep and mutual trust.
People who think and write about the rule of law and other foundations of complex human societies often refer to the “principle of veracity,” which means an adherence to truth telling, but the emotional issue is of mutual trust, where even a single lie spoils the well. I may trust you to treat me fairly, to mean me no harm, or even to have my best interests at heart, but if I discover reason not trust your word, can I really retain any confidence in the rest of it?
To put this in more global terms, sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers, and political scientists are in wide agreement that without some adherence to the principle of veracity, no human institution can stand. Marriages, families, neighborhoods, congregations, even nations cannot and will not functionally exist in the absence of veracity and mutual trust. The stakes are high when it comes to mendacity.
So what are we called to do? We who are gathered here as a community of faith, whose core principles call us to seek and follow the truth? We should know that there is great wisdom in the old words, “The truth shall set you free...”
That phrase has resonated through the centuries and whoever first wrote it, (nobody knows…) those words are worthy of our attention and our deepest reflection.
There are some wonderful variations of that phrase. James Garfield said, “The truth shall set you free, but first it will make you miserable.” Gloria Steinem once said, “The truth shall set you free, but first it will piss you off.”
That phrase has been adopted by secular universities and institutions all over the world including Cal Tech, and Johns Hopkins University. And, you might be interested to know that the exact phrase, “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free,” is chiseled in stone above the doors of the original headquarters building of the CIA!
Martin Luther King used the phrase many times, perhaps most notably in his speech, The Other America. He said: I still believe that freedom is the bonus you receive for telling the truth. Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free. And I do not see how we will ever solve the turbulent problem of race confronting our nation until there is an honest confrontation with it - and a willing search for the truth and willingness to admit the truth when we discover it.
That is difficult and vulnerable work.
Winston Churchill once said that, “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.” And in words falsely attributed to George Orwell, “In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
That is where we must start. By singing and praying and laughing, and loving, and working together... In relationship, honestly and lovingly accountable, mutually committed to both truth and freedom.
And this is true, because almost 2500 years ago Socrates observed that no government will create a just people, but only a just people will create a just government.
And this is true because 2000 years ago Jesus said you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.
And this is true because over a hundred and fifty years ago, Emma Lazarus said, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”
And this is true because Martin Luther King said: “Love is the only cement that can hold the broken community together.”
But mostly why we need to start there, in our own hearts, our own souls, our own lives…. Is because if we will have the courage to be brutally honest with ourselves, seek the truth with all our minds and all our hearts, and all our soul, and all our strength…., we will see that behind all our differences, and beneath all our diversity, there is a unity that makes us one, and binds us forever together in spite of time, and death, and the space between the stars.
And that Unity, that invisible unity that holds us and heals us and strengthens us, is real. If we will make it so. If we will be open to it. If we will be courageous enough. If we will gather the strength we need from the divine and from each other. If we will keep our eyes on the prize.