Lying and Deception in Honor-Shame Societies
(Prologue to this series here. Part I of the series here.)
In various essays and The Cultural Dictionary of the Bible, Context Group scholar John Pilch has written about the phenomenon of lying and deception in honor-shame societies, where lies are seldom moral failures. Deceiving enemies is honorable, because it's not "really lying"; it’s simply depriving them of the respect and honor to which they have no right as rivals. Likewise, lying in order to maintain harmony among friends is honorable, because it also isn't "really lying"; it's simply making them feel good and giving them the face they deserve as friends. It's shameful to tell the truth if it dishonors or hurts the feelings of a friend or family member.
In collectivist (group oriented) cultures, truth has more to do with appearances than reality. Contrast the psychological relationship between the selves for Western and Mediterranean people. (For a better-looking chart of this, see Bruce Malina’s The Social World of Jesus and the Gospels, p 85.)
Publicly defined self
Privately defined self
In-group defined self
Publicly defined self
In-group defined self
Privately defined self
In Western individualist cultures, the publicly defined self is generally expected to coincide with the privately defined self, while the in-group defined self recedes into the background. In other words, "to speak one way while thinking another" is hypocrisy. But in Mediterranean collectivist cultures, the publicly defined self is generally expected to coincide with the in-group defined self, while the privately defined self recedes into the background. In other words, "to speak one way if it's not what people expect or want to hear" is dishonorable.
I learned this lesson the hard way while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa. One day I had to leave my village and make a trip to the capital. A fellow villager asked me to run some errands for him and bring back a substantial amount of goods from various places in the city. I replied, quite truthfully, that I probably wouldn’t have time to visit many of those places -- and that, in any case, my backpacks would be stuffed to a breaking point. That was the wrong thing to say. Though I gave an honest answer, I had seriously insulted him. He was belligerent and hostile for weeks afterwards.
I later learned that I should have told the villager I would run the errands for him and bring back whatever he needed, even if I knew in advance that I could not (or would not) do this. I should have given him the face he deserved as a friend and member of my community. Only after returning from the city should I have accounted for any failure to do as requested. The situation between me and this villager was exactly the same as between the two sons and their father in Jesus' well-known parable of the two sons (Mt 21:28-30). I had behaved like the first son instead of the second. The first son said "no" to his father -- an outrage and serious dishonor, regardless of his subsequent attempt to rectify that disgrace. I said "no" to a fellow villager -- likewise an outrage and serious dishonor, regardless of how honest and sincere my motives were. Even if I had ended up picking up the things he wanted, the damage had been done, and a lot more would have been needed to effect a reconciliation. As it was, it took weeks to bring about such a reconciliation.
This may sound crazy to Western ears, but even individualists have socially required forms of lying, as in cases of thanking someone for an unappreciated gift or saying that someone’s new hairdo looks nice even if it looks ghastly. In these cases, the publicly defined self coincides with the in-group defined self, not the privately defined self. (A lie is told so as not to hurt someone’s feelings.) Yet for the most part, individualists are raised to believe that lying is a bad thing. Note that I said raised to believe. In the last post we saw that 60% of these individualists tell three lies for every ten minutes of conversation anyway. I'm not sure someone like Pilch realizes this.
The key to remember is that lying in order to (a) preserve harmony among friends, or (b) deceive or degrade enemies, are both equally honorable and very often expected of people in collectivist cultures.
Pilch identifies seven kinds of lies and deceptions employed in the service of honor, and offers biblical examples of these strategies (in Cultural Dictionary of the Bible). Naturally, the greatest biblical heroes were liars. I add a couple of examples, and see also Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh’s Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, for the example in 4.
1. Concealment of Failure
Example: the second son in Mt 21:28-30
Pilch notes that a group of surveyed Lebanese villagers unanimously agreed that the second son -- who told his father he was going to work in the field, though he did not actually do so -- was the good son. He gave his father a respectful answer and told him what he wanted to hear. The first son -- who refused to work in the field but later went anyway -- was outrageously insulting. Again, appearances are more important than reality. The first son dishonored his father, regardless of his later attempt to rectify the disgrace. The second son lied in order to conceal his failure, thereby honoring his father and giving him face. As mentioned above, I learned this lesson the hard way living in Africa.
2. On Behalf of Kin, Friends, Guests, or Patrons
Example: Rahab in Josh 2:3-6
Rahab lied to the king’s men concerning the location of Joshua’s spies, in order to protect her guests as honor demanded.
3. Avoiding Quarrels or Trouble
Examples: Abraham & Sarah in Gen 12:11-12 & 20:2,5; Peter in Mk 14:68,70,71
Abraham and Sarah lied about their marriage while traveling as aliens in Egypt, and Peter’s triple bald-faced lie saved him from the fate of his savior. That Peter is faulted in the context of the Markan narrative, while Abraham and Sarah escape censure, isn’t the point. The point is that in each case one acts out of an honorable code of self-preservation.
4. Sheer Concealment (Habitual)
Example: Jesus in Jn 7:1-10
This is an interesting example. As Judeans were looking for an opportunity to kill Jesus (Jn 7:1), his relatives urged him to go to the festival anyway, because (so they said) his mighty works would enhance his honor rating (7:3-4) -- though in reality, they probably figured his death would rid them of a perpetual disgrace to family honor (for in fact “his brothers did not believe in him” (7:5)). Jesus lied: “I am not going to this festival” (7:8). He remained in Galilee (7:9) but went to the festival as soon as his relatives departed, “not publicly but secretly” (7:10). It's precisely because Jesus’ brothers “did not believe in him” that they deserved to be lied to. Jesus was at home in the honor-shame world, deceiving his rivals as they deserved.
5. For Gain
Examples: Jacob in Gen 27:24-41; David in I Sam 21:1-6
Jacob lied to his blind father, claiming he was Esau, robbing his brother of his birthright. Likewise, David lied to the priest of Nob, saying that he was on an urgent mission from the king, sacrilegiously obtaining the Bread of the Presence for him and his men to eat.
6. False Imputation (Slander; Insults)
Examples: Jezebel in I Kings 21:1-16; Jesus in Jn 8:39-59
These are lies of degradation more than deception. Jezebel ruined Naboth’s honor with lies of false imputation, engineering his death by stoning, and obtaining his vineyard for the king. Jesus called the Judeans murderers and children of the devil -- to which they retaliated by lying in turn, calling him a Samaritan. From the perspective of the biblical authors, Jesus is a divine protagonist and thus cannot really be a liar, while Jezebel and the Judeans are certainly understood to be liars. But from the antagonists’ perspectives, the opposite is true. This is what the agonistic milieu of honor-shame is all about.
7. Pure Mischief
Examples: God and Satan in Gen 2-3; God in I Kings 22:19-23 & II Thess 2:11-12
God lied to Adam, saying that to eat the forbidden fruit would result in immediate death. The serpent exposed God’s lie by telling Eve this was not true. In the honor-shame context, God is perfectly justified countering Satan’s mischief with his own. So he sends “a lying spirit into the mouths of many prophets” in order to bring about King Ahab’s disaster, just as he sends his enemies “powerful delusions, leading them to believe lies”, precisely “so that they will be condemned”.
Pilch, Malina, and Rohrbaugh thus inform us that collectivists lie and deceive more than individualists. I would put the matter differently. Individualists lie/deceive as habitually and often as collectivists, even if the collectivist cultures encompass more socially acceptable forms of lying/deception, as dictated by the honor-shame canons. The results of evolutionary-psychology and cultural-anthropology, taken together, point to a phenomenon which is consistent across the species, but valued differently according to culture. Individualists are thus more pretentious about truth and honesty, and end up violating their own values more than collectivists.
In the next part of this series, we will look at lying and deception in authorship, i.e. forgeries and hoaxes.
The complete series:
Lying and Deception in Homo Sapiens
Lying and Deception in Honor-Shame Cultures
Lying and Deception in Authorship
Lying and Deception in the Postmodern Age