Monday, June 9, 2008

On Lying

I’m pretty sure it was Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, in which Jubal Harshaw says “…the slickest way to lie is to tell the right amount of truth - then to shut up.” This is about as misbegotten a bit of advice that Heinlein ever gave. Not that there aren’t plenty of people who believe the advice; it’s just that it doesn’t work that well.

I remember a documentary on I. F. Stone, in which he disclosed that the real secret of his journalism was in listening to the exact words of politicians and government officials in order to spot the slight verbal tics that indicated the legalistic lie, the carefully worded truth meant to convey the wrong impression. I have a friend who was positively incensed when he learned of Clinton’s mislead, saying “I did not have an 8 year long affair with Jennifer Flowers,” when actually it was a 12 year affair. I’ve lost touch with my friend, so I don’t know how he felt about Cheney/Tennet’s description of the link between Saddam and bin Laden: “We have solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda going back a decade” which translated to “there have been no real contacts for the past 10 years.”

But I am reminded of a quote I recall from a high official in the last days of Polish communism, “The purpose of propaganda is not to get people to believe lies. The purpose of propaganda is to kill the idea of truth.” Twisting truth is more dangerous than merely telling lies; when the truth twists, the very ground beneath your feet becomes treacherous.

I happen to be a close to incompetent liar. I’m just not very good at it. So the Heinlein prescription held some attraction when I was younger and more naïve. But twisted truth still has threads of truth in it, and is easier to pull apart than a well-constructed fabrication. So let me start with the advice, if you’re going to lie, then tell a lie. Be a mensch. At least admit to yourself that you’re making it up. That, at least, saves you from the conceit that you’re better than those you’re lying to. The lie-by-telling-the-truth game lets you tell yourself that it’s your audience that’s too dim-witted to figure out what you’re really saying.

The next important point is that narrative is important. The best lies tell a good story, one with all the proper narrative tricks, like foreshadowing and thematic resonance. All well and good.

But the most important thing about a good lie is to tell your audience what they want to hear. And what they most want to hear is that they are important, they are worthwhile, and they are better than someone else.

That's also my advice on how to write popular fiction, too. And I have trouble with the "popular" part, another indication as to just how poor a liar I am.


black dog barking said...

In defense of politicians (it feels very odd to type those words) those that actually try to do their job spend an awful lot of time listening to people complain. When not complaining their constituents use adversarial advocacy to argue why a pet project is the most important use of scarce common resources. Like tending a houseful of children minus the cuteness and innocence. If the experienced politician knows what to say to make the angry feel a little better without giving away the farm, well, that's their job.

Also, the very best fiction may not be true in fact but the production of veritas is a byproduct of its consumption. The Grapes of Wrath may be the truest book I've ever read.

James Killus said...

I'll actually second the defense of politicians and note that telling the truth is not the highest value of their profession, nor should it be. They are supposed to lean more heavily on the good than on the true or the beautiful, to cite the Philosophical Trinity.

So, shading the truth, making empty promises, dodging the issues, sure. Only these had all better be for the greater good, and it all had better well work out. Otherwise, damn them to hell.

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