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OnWords: Functions Of Lying

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The most powerful lies aren’t the day-to-day, so-called white lies--that we’re ”fine” or that we genuinely care if complete strangers “have a good one.” These are, in fact, sometimes important parts of being polite.

The most powerful lies, rather, are ones we might call existential: lies that are meant to preserve the very sense of who we are.

Avoiding scandal falls within the category of the existential lie. With the existential lie, we seek protection from the parts of ourselves that we would like to deny—the parts of us we’d like to keep away from the mirror of society.

Existential lies moved Bill Clinton to deny having sexual relations with “that woman” and Lance Armstrong to deny doping. They led Mark Sanford to claim he was hiking the Appalachian Trail, and they’ve led many in the oil industry to deny any part in global warming.

The end point of an existential lie is not contempt but pity: they make us see others as the deeply flawed humans they really always were.

But perhaps most obnoxious lies are in a third category: the pro-active lies that form the basis of much marketing and all political spin. Pro-active lies imply that regular people are too stupid or irresponsible to be trusted with the truth: that a new law won’t actually address the cause of a social problem, for example, or that 4 out of 5 dentists would recommend any fluoride toothpaste and not just the leading brand.

This isn’t lying for self-protection so much as lying as power-play. The pro-active lie defines terms disingenuously and forces further communication on the subject to be carefully untangled if it is to be honest.

So if we look less at the lie itself and more at its function—whether politeness, self-preservation, or power-play—we might be less likely to be angry when we needn’t be, and more likely to be moved to pity or to outrage when we should be.

Lael Ewy is a co-founder and editor of EastWesterly Review, a journal of literary satire at www.postmodernvillage.com, and a writer whose work has appeared in such venues as Denver Quarterly and New Orleans Review and has been anthologized in Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh.