A lie is better than the truth in our society

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”(Orwell, Animal Farm preface)

Lewis Carroll said “Always speak the truth, think before you speak, and write it down afterwards.” The problem with that simplistic saying is that if you were to think before you spoke, you might well decide to lie instead.

So we may ask will the truth set you free? Mostly the answer is clearly not. Mostly, it will cost you your friends, your job and your reputation.

It’s a truism in our society: “you should tell truth”, “no one likes a liar”, “your lies will come back to haunt you”. From birth we are taught that lying is bad and telling the truth is good.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth (irony intended). In our lives, we mostly live by the opposite mantra. Avoid the truth at all costs (because the truth hurts) and make sure we dissemble and tell half-truths. Live by white lies and create our own (false) truths and mythologies. We deceive people, create deception and then we lie about it. And then, often, lie to ourselves about why we lied. Hardly the virtuous circle.

We want to believe in things, in people, in organisations, in teams, in nations and in ideologies. They are foundations which provide our grounding and stability in life. But few people and even fewer institutions are perfect and when people tell the truth about those institutions or organisations, for some it can destroy their entire value and belief systems and, in some cases, their meaning for or in life.

So we prefer to believe myths about the virtue of the organisations for which we work, or which we join, or about the individuals we admire. The admiration of some for Donald Trump is an example of this because, as a person, he represents a set of values and beliefs. To abandon Trump, even in the face of all the evidence, is to abandon your own beliefs.

I experienced this working for the environment movement. I would talk to colleagues who had an unwavering belief in the policies or projects of the organisation we worked for and who hated some other environmental organisations with a passion.

Some years later I met some of these individuals working for the very organisation they had so demonised. Then, in discussion, they would demonstrate the same hostility to their prior employers as they once had for their present one.

At the same time they would swear their beliefs had not changed at all when it fact it was clear that, chameleon like, they had amended their beliefs so that they could “believe” in the rightness and virtue of their new organisation. This was despite it clearly not having changed in the years since they once criticised it.

I have seen this too with the Greens, where former members of the Labor Party now treat the Greens with the same sort of blind loyalty that they once owed to the Labor Party. My party right or wrong.

To them every member of the party must owe blind loyalty to the party even though it is simply a replaceable human institution set up to achieve a specific purpose; if it fails to meet those goals, or its original purpose, we should no longer support it.

But the blind acolytes of any party, MP worshippers, the ideologues and the zealots don’t want to hear the truth about the party or about those that represent the party, no matter how wrong or how fallible those individuals or the party may be. They aren’t interested in seeing when the party betrays its principles or when its representatives sell the community down the drain.

This is an attitude all political parties, including the Greens, need to address. Because when you resist criticism you resist change, you resist improvement and you resist reform. It’s how organisations rot from the inside out. And as organisations get bigger and more institutionalised this tendency gets worse.

I have had colleagues implicitly or explicitly demand loyalty even in the face of actions which a significant number of others viewed as wrong and arguably, even, unprincipled. In this case the disagreements were value judgements but the suggestion that simply being a member of an organisation requires one to blindly follow that organisation is precisely the path that leads to corruption and totalitarianism.

This is, in fact the rot at the heart of our current political system where decisions made are not based on fact or on ethics, morality or what is best for the community, but on a shared ideological bond that is most marked in the Labor, Liberal and National parties.

In some cases these things are not actually a lie but simply the absence of truth. But the absence of truth can be as bad or worse than a lie. Its impact can be as bad as worse. It’s the equivalent of failing to shine a light into the darkness. It’s what leads to totalitarianism and genocide. My country wrong or right; do not tell me the truth about my country (or my party, my friend, my leader), I don’t want to know and I won’t accept it.

Truth is also relative. What is obviously true to you, I may perceive as false. You swim a length of the pool in 40 seconds and I see that as fast, but to someone else, clearly, it is slow. And that’s before we even get to the modern day conundrum of alternative facts and science denial.

Leaving relativity aside, alternative facts and science denial aside, one can confidently state that almost no one likes the truth. We don’t like the truth when it conflicts with our beliefs. We don’t like the truth when it destroys our delusions about the world or ourselves or shows up our behaviour. We often don’t like the truth when it hurts us (because it often shatters our delusions and self-image).

We don’t like the truth when it exposes the groups, institutions, parties, organisations, cults, families and relationships to which we belong or which we support. And as individuals we instinctively avoid the truth because it damages the truth teller as well as the target of the truth telling. You only have to look to the fate of whistleblowers to see that.

If I tell you the truth about yourself, namely that you are behaving arrogantly, egotistically and in a narcissistic manner I may well hurt you (at least in the short term if you are someone lacking self-awareness). But if you are genuinely narcissistic and arrogant I will hurt myself too, because you will hate me and no one likes to be hated. It creates stress and anxiety. And narcissists rarely accept the truth about themselves as I have seen too often in the Greens and elsewhere.

Having an affair is the classic example of the vicious circle of truth. Many people have affairs because they are unhappy, lonely or unfulfilled in a relationship. But they don’t want to tell the other person they are unhappy because it will hurt that person, (whom they often still care about). They also avoid revealing their own unhappiness because they find it too difficult or because, simply, it is a symbol of their own failure. So instead they hide their feelings and embark on an affair.

They then hide the affair either because they are guilty or because, again, they judge it is better for the other person not to know. They judge that a lie is better. But of course when the other person finds out, if they do, it is often worse than had they known, because the deceived person feels not only undesirable, unwanted, but foolish and naive as well, for not knowing or finding out.

The way in which people who tell the truth are viewed in society is reflected in the terms we often use for such people when they reveal things which we feel should be kept secret, even if they are wrong or illegal: dobbers, turncoats, tell-tale, traitors, snitch, grass, nark, tattle-tale, rat, stoolie.

In many circumstances we prefer to be ignorant of the truth. For many years I worked with an iconic, much admired and, in many ways highly ethical and virtuous figure. I have always considered him a friend and still do and I still admire him for what he is and has done.

But at the same time he can be arrogant, highly dismissive of those he doesn’t agree with and he has a huge ego, traits that can, and occasionally do, make him a nightmare to work. Faults which make him anything other than a team player. I can see all his faults (as others no doubt see mine but rarely tell me).

I frequently meet people who have never met him but who treat him as some sort of saint, a cult figure and believe he can do know wrong. When I laugh at them and tell them he is far from what they believe, they mostly don’t want to have their illusions shattered. They would rather believe a lie they have created for themselves.

So when people tell you that you should tell truth, don’t believe them. It is unlikely that they so themselves. It can be hard on others and even harder on you. But if you are going to do so, be prepared to be attacked, vilified, criticised and called a scumbag, a traitor or worse.

Chris Harris is a former Campaign Coordinator for the Australian Greens and for the Greens NSW

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