Saturday, October 08, 2005

Lying and Deception in the Postmodern Age

(Prologue to this series here. Part I here. Part II here. Part III here.)

In The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life, Ralph Keyes presents the postmodern age in all its ambiguity, calling it a post-truth era and ethical twilight zone.

Keyes believes people were more honest in the past, not so much because they were more conscientious, but because the concept of truth was more absolute, and most interactions took place among familiar faces. Not only does postmodernity blur distinctions between right and wrong, online communication makes lying and deception easier (p 38). "Email is a dissembling godsend. We needn't worry about the quiver in our voices or the tremor in our pinkies. A digitized lie doesn’t feel as though it has the same gravity as one uttered in person or murmured over the phone." (p 198)

In today's professional world, human resource people assume that most resumes are inflated. San Francisco mayor Willie Brown said, "I don't know anyone who doesn't lie on a resume." This is especially true with the listing of unearned degrees. Keyes reports startling investigations which suggest that about half million Americans hold jobs for which their purported qualifications are bogus. One investigation, conducted by the General Accounting Office, exposed twenty-eight senior federal officials who didn’t have the college degrees they had claimed. In another case, one third of a group of applicants for a hospital job withdrew their application forms once told that their credentials would be checked by a professional firm.

If David Smith is right about homo sapiens being a species of natural-born liars, how much more does the postmodern atmosphere inflame our genetic inclinations? In a world where truth is a social construct, and useful myths are valued more than barren truths, honesty grounded in facts becomes almost pathological. Jeremy Campbell isn’t being overly cartoonish when he says that to a postmodernist, being too concerned with telling the truth "is a sign of depleted resources, a psychological disorder, a character defect, a kind of linguistic anorexia; without at least the capacity to lie, a person is not fully human and may even require professional help" (The Liar's Tale, p 260). This squares with Smith's findings about those who are too honest (especially with themselves): they're mentally unhealthy.

Similarly, sociologist J.A. Barnes suggests that what others call lies a postmodernist might call "meaningful data in their own right" (A Pack of Lies, p 60). Keyes notes that a biographer of Liberace agreed with this principle, saying that the pianist's lying under oath in court (denying having engaged in homosexual activity) signaled a broader truth about the danger of being openly gay (pp 144-145). Binjamin Wilkomirski's firsthand account of the Holocaust won prizes and was hailed as a classic of Holocaust literature in 1995, until withdrawn by the publishers four years later after being exposed as a hoax ("Wilkomirski" wasn't even Jewish, rather a Swiss gentile named Bruno Doesseker). Amazingly, many people excused the hoax for being "emotionally honest", a lie pointing to a greater truth which could help victims of the Shoah (p 140).

Some legal scholars (notably Farber and Sherry, in Beyond All Reason) have even suggested that we need to replace our truth-seeking proclivities with "storytelling" and "narratives". According to them, trial participants need to be free to relate their own versions of truth, unhindered by the constraints of fact-finding accuracy. As Keyes notes, "this grows out of the political position that socially constructed versions of 'objective truth' invariably favor the powerful and should be replaced with narratives and stories" (pp 147-148). Farber and Sherry thus envision legal proceedings in which the oppressed would be able to state their case without getting bogged down in factual details.

Although "postmodernism has lost its cutting edge" (Keyes, p 146), the idea of truth as a relative construct has set in, rampantly fueling our inclinations to lie and deceive. In the next and final post, I will wrap up in epilogue, and address to what degree we can call honesty an attainable virtue.

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


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