Jeff Wise provides what he calls “The Ten Secrets of Effective Liars” on the “Psychology Today” website. I have some problems with his list, among them that despite his protestations to the contrary, it sure reads more like a handy-dandy self-help list for the George Costanzas, Tommy Flanagans and Bill Clintons among us.
My main objection, though, is to his #3 on the list, #3 Tell the truth, misleadingly. He correctly points out that a statement that is technically true will often be the most effective way of misleading others, but writes, “Technically, it’s only a prevarication – about half a sin.” I don’t know or care about how it ranks on the sin scale, but he is describing deceit, and deceit is a lie, period, no question about it. Wise is passing on a misconception himself, one that allows the most effective and destructive liars among us deceive routinely and then rationalize that they “really weren’t lying.” Spreading this common, popular and useful—to liars—myth does more damage than any of the supposedly beneficial results of his list could make up for.
Among the sinister results of promoting deceit as only half a lie, and therefore twice as forgivable as a “real” lie, is that it gives deceit masters (like Clinton) an effective excuse when they are caught. “Oh! Oh, I’m sorry! When I said ‘I didn’t have sex with that woman,” you thought I meant that I didn’t use my superior power and influence to persuade my young female intern to give me a hummer! I should have been clearer!” Right. Thus the liar switches the real blame onto the listener who was originally deceived. If that listener likes the liar and was inclined to trust him (or her), the rationalization that it was all a big misunderstanding will often be enough to allow the party deceived to keep trusting the liar…and be set up to be deceived again.
Living in Washington, D.C., I am hyper-sensitive to deceit, which is used around the clock by the President, Congress, both parties and the media to confuse and mislead the public into believing things that are not true. I am also disgusted by it. Last week, for example, after both the Washington Post and The New York Times slammed the White House for coordinating with the former Obama-organized campaign group “Organizing for Action,” which promised access to Obama to $500,000 donors., Jay Carney told the press that…
“Any notion that there is a set price for a meeting with the president of the United States is just wrong.”
Later, Carney insisted,
“But, again, any notion that there’s a price for meeting with the president is simply wrong.”
These amount to collective deceit, and I may add, Obama’s deceit, as anything his spokesperson says is. Carney intends them to deflect accusations that the White House has been and is selling access, which is exactly what OFA is doing, and to sound like outright denials, which they are not:
- Carney says that OFA isn’t selling access to Obama for the “set price” of $500,000. He never said they weren’t and hadn’t.
- He never said it wouldn’t in the future, either.
- He didn’t say that access to the President couldn’t be bought, he said there was no “set” price. Why did he say “set” if what was intended was, “we won’t allow donors to buy their time with the President, no matter what they pay”? He said set to answer a different question than was asked, and to deceive. If it turns out that bog donor X gets hours with Obama after giving a million bucks, and donor Y gets access after giving $300,000, Carney can claim that he didn’t lie. There was no “price” as he defined price, as a set amount. One can buy access with a big honking financial contribution, but there’s no “price.”
Swindlers and cheats as well as double-talking politicians bank on such manipulation, and harm innocent, trusting, naive people every day.
- “Of course I love you [...in my own way].”
- “I’ll get your money [..but I won't give it to you]“.
- “I want to marry you [but have no intention of doings so].”
- “I accept your job offer [until I hear that I have that other job that pays more].”
- “My client is innocent [technically, because he's innocent under the law until he is convicted, but he sure did it].
- “The United States does not engage in torture [...we just farm out prisoners to countries that do].”
- “You’ll be able to keep your health plan, if you like it [unless my new law forces your employer to eliminate it to save costs].
And my all-time favorite, “No, my dog doesn’t bite [...but my dog is at home, while that dog you think is mine will rip your arm off.]
Wise is wrong. These are all lies. Not half-lies, but lies, perhaps worse than other varieties, because they use the human tendency to trust against us, and in so doing destroy trust by increments.
You can read Wise’s article here.