Monday Motivation: Lies, damned lies and pure fiction
I’ve accepted long since that there is no such thing as “objective” truth. Apart from the certainties of maths and science, it’s all a matter of perspective – and even science has for the past seventy or more years been talking more about probabilities than absolutes.
I am, after all, like many of you, a product of the second half of the twentieth century – the century in which the Big Lie became a governing principle, in which propaganda was used to manipulate the views of entire populations, in which people lost faith in authority.
It was Adolf Hitler who boasted that “If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.”
And over fifty percent of all of Donald Trump’s assertions of “fact” have, on examination, proved to be lies.
And yet deceit is not the perogative of politicians and dictators.
Leonard Saxe, a professor of psychology at Brandeis University, says “Lying has long been a part of everyday life. We couldn’t get through the day without being deceptive.”
We lie to ourselves. We lie to our partners. We lie to our parents and, as parents, we lie to our children. We lie to our bosses and our colleagues. We lie most frequently, research shows, when we’re part of a group. If we’re believers, we even lie to our maker.
Do I need to adduce examples of all these instances of untruthfulness?
Perhaps more remarkable about our easy habit of lying is the even greater ease we have in finding excuses and justifications and rationalisations for lying. It’s better that so-and-so not know the truth… The truth would only harm a relationship that otherwise manages somehow to splutter on like a damp fuse… It’s only a white lie, after all, and does no harm; in fact it’s a little lie that positively adds to the harmony of the family… The doctor doesn’t really need to know that I drink a little more wine than he advises, does he? After all, I’m as healthy as a horse…
This is life. And yet, in fiction, our characters, for the most part, tell the truth, both to themselves and their partners, friends and colleagues. Of course, they do lie from time to time. Self-deception is an important theme in fiction. And it was Huckleberry Finn who tried to pass himself off as a girl (an early instance of identity theft?) – and was named and shamed by the sharp-eyed Judith Loftus.
In fiction, hucksters lie, fraudsters deceive, spies live a double life – but generally speaking, run-of-the-mill characters are steady and true. They have a clear vision of themselves. Their conversations are models of insight and probity. They use language to slice away evasion and get at the truth.
But remember what Voltaire, that sharp-eyed commentator on the human condition, said: “Men use thought only as authority for their injustice, and employ speech only to conceal their thoughts.”
So when writing your fiction remember this cynical truth: self-deceit is for many people, both real and fictional, the default setting. Truth is the beam of light that stabs down only occasionally on humans toiling through a fog of self-deception. We are poor creatures who need to bolster our self-esteem, convince ourselves that our lives are meaningful and win the admiration of others… by lying.