Thursday, August 30, 2012

white lies


BACK STORY: K. invites her mother, E., to stay with her at the beachfront house she rented, and both of them decide that it'd be fine if E. brings her friend D. along, whom K. has already met and liked. D., it's soon established with a puff of smoke, brought pot with her, and K. becomes worried. She could lose her license, she says (driver's license? nursing license?). E. could as well (insurance license?). D. is smoking the pot out in the open, on the deck, with no worries. This makes K. even more uncomfortable, especially since the house was rented in her friend's name. (Of possible interest: K. has smoked pot before, as has E., most likely.) Anyway, D. is told to stop, but doesn't. So, since K. is still uncomfortable, E. tells K. that they'll just go home. K. feels bad. "It's no big deal," E. tells her. "This kind of stuff happens to me all the time." They finally agree. Next E. makes up a story to tell D. as the reason for their sudden, unplanned departure. "I have to go home because I can't get in touch with my brother," she tells D., which causes them to come home two days earlier than planned.

THOUGHTS: When I told E. that D. was perceptive enough to figure out the real reason―or at least figure out that the reason given was bullshit―E. responded, "No, it's fine." I asked her why she didn't just tell D. the truth about why they were leaving. E. replied, "Think how bad it would make D. feel if she knew we were coming home early because of her." Well, I said, why not just tell her, "Look, this is making K. uncomfortable, and when we asked you to stop before, we were being serious. So, again, can you please stop? Because if you don't stop we're going to have to go home early; as I said, K. isn't comfortable with the risk. Maybe you don't think there's any risk but we're K.'s guests, therefore it's her decision." Then, I explained, the ball is in D.'s court, and she couldn't feel bad if she then "made you" take her home. Once she's been made aware of the gravity of the situation (as K. sees it), she has only herself to blame if she continues to smoke. Furthermore, if she still decides against complying with her friend's request once the situation has been made explicitly clear, then you'll discover that D. isn't a very respectful friend, which would be nice to know (though that information would probably be uncomfortable and therefore undesirable, in E.'s view). But this direct approach never seemed to occur to E., and I suspect it's because the real reason the lie was fostered in the first place was to prevent D. from thinking K. and E. were party poopers, fuddy-duddies, squares. In other words, the lie was created by E. and K., not for D.'s sake, but for their own. They, quite unknowingly, wanted to maintain the image they had of themselves as hip, with-it, cool, easy going, laid-back, open-minded―an image they want others (in this case, D.) to see and believe as well; therefore, they had to present and foster it, even if only as a mask. Facing the truth would have meant casting doubt on this image.

Now, if that's not the case (of course they would almost certainly deny it regardless, probably because they're hiding it from themselves), then the lie makes even less sense because it's so arbitrary and pointless. "Quick! We have to go! I called my brother five times, and he didn't pick up!" They've established a mode where lying has become the default, go-to response to any semi-confrontational situation, which is, among other things, juvenile. But seeing it as juvenile would conflict with another one of the images they have of themselves, which is that of a mature, responsible adult. So what must they do instead? They have to justify their lying by seeing it as essential, even good. "You don't understand. I was really just helping her. Protecting her." (Stop and think about everything that rationale implies for a moment.) And they also justify it by viewing it as a "white lie", the kind of lie that's standard and acceptable. They classify it along with, "No, you do not look fat in that" (which isn't a very helpful lie either, if you think about it1). But if they would allow themselves to step back for a moment and exercise some reflection and self-criticism, it wouldn't be overly difficult to see how unnecessary, silly, and potentially harmful such lies are. But people don't usually do that. It requires too much unmasking, too big a fight between who you think you are and who you really are.

People who have made white lies their standby also don't seem to realize how obvious such lies are to anyone with half a brain, which has the added effect of annoying everyone around you who happens to have half a brain. (When you lie to a perceptive person, they usually hear (or suspect) the lie. And when they watch a liar's lips move, they don't see the liar mouthing the lie, they see them mouthing the words, "You are dumb as shit; that's why I think you'll believe this.") The white-liar thinks they're fooling everyone, but they're only fooling themselves. Protecting themselves, preserving their self-image. "This kind of stuffs happens to me all the time," E. said to K. Maybe it's time she started asking herself why.
* * *

Interestingly, perhaps the notion that D.'s smoking bothered K. was actually a white lie constructed by K. in order to get one (or both) of them to leave! Maybe they were getting on her nerves, and she wanted to spend the last few days alone. (Very crafty, K.!) Just maybe... After all, when that's the world you've decided to create, who could ever know for sure?



1 Much better is the truth, politely phrased. Some variation of: "I've seen you in much more flattering outfits." Then the person, you know, might actually find something better to wear. (This is the footnote that will inevitably cause certain white-liars to say to themselves, "Wait, I do that," thus resulting in them disregarding everything else I said above, thinking it no longer applies to them.)

Dante and Virgil among the white-falsifiers

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

You wrote: "When you lie to a perceptive person, they usually hear (or suspect) the lie. And when they watch a liar's lips move, they don't see the liar mouthing the lie, they see them mouthing the words, 'You are dumb as shit; that's why I think you'll believe this.'"

Why did you make this parenthetical? It's the most interesting part of this issue. Given that most "white lies" are self-serving in some way, whether it's protecting self-image, as you say, or an attempt to get something better than what we deserve, etc.--given that, what assumptions must we be making about each other (on both sides of the interaction) in order to think that our white lies will be effective for our self-serving goals?

Most people on the receiving end of a lie will not interpret it as a personal insult, but rather as an indication of the liar's stupidity. They will see the liar mouthing the words, "I am dumb as shit, so I think you will believe this." If they know that the liar is not dumb as shit, or if the consequences of accepting the liar's stupidity would be too great for them, they will assume that the liar must have a lot at stake in the lie, i.e., they will assume that the liar is lying in order to protect them from some horrible truth.

The liar, in turn, knows all this on some level, and knows that she could very easily be caught in the lie if only the recipient decided to pry into the situation (most people have zero skill when it comes to defending their own lies). Therefore, in order for lying to make sense for the liar, she has to assume that the person she is lying to is compassionate enough to keep quiet in the face of what is obviously an untruth. So, while the lied-to assumes the worst, the liar assumes that the lied-to will assume the worst, everyone's perception of self and other is preserved, and civilization continues merrily on.

In this particular situation, everyone involved knows that the real reason for the early departure was D.'s drug habit. The brother excuse is just a mutually agreed up on code which allows them to avoid the messy business of assigning blame, and, worse, a potential alteration in the dynamics of their friendship. From which point of view, of course, the lie was totally necessary and, for the moment, until the memory of it is dredged up or alluded to in a future conversation or argument, harmless. The only remaining question is whether E. is really stupid enough to think that D. believed the brother story. The fact that she believes she is the victim ("this sort of thing happens to me all the time") may be a clue to the answer.

Tyler said...

I like your interpretation of the liar mouthing the words "I am dumb as shit, so I think you will believe this." At the same time I think being lied to is almost always insulting as it's inherently disrespectful.

"Therefore, in order for lying to make sense for the liar, she has to assume that the person she is lying to is compassionate enough to keep quiet in the face of what is obviously an untruth."

Do you personally think it's (always? usually? in my example?) compassionate to keep quiet in the face of a lie, or were you just referring to how the liar perceives the situation? Is "compassionate" even the right word? I think there are other factors motivating someone to "keep quiet" in the face of a lie, perhaps the strongest being the desire to avoid creating a "potential alteration in the dynamics of [a] friendship." The liar trusts that the person they're lying to will decide against disturbing this balance (though I think the liar is often deluded into thinking their lies are more believable than they really are, which is partly why they end up fooling themselves more than anyone). I'm not sure compassion has much (or anything) to do with it.

"From which point of view, of course, the lie was totally necessary and, for the moment, until the memory of it is dredged up or alluded to in a future conversation or argument, harmless."

In a similar vein, are you personally defending the POV that makes E.'s lie "necessary," or are you only talking about the perspective of those involved?

As to your last remark, E. often thinks she's some sort of victim. Perhaps it's a complex created in order to help her avoid taking ownership for never having lived up to what she believes is her full potential. Of course others would say it's because she's a narcissist.

Tyler said...

PS: And yes, it seems fairly clear that you're not endorsing the POV that believes the lie to be harmless; I just wanted to be completely certain.

Tyler said...

At any rate, depending on the specific context, I agree with what you said. I just don't think everything you said applies to the example I gave, and I wasn't sure if all of it was meant to.

Somewhere Zizek mentions the "coded lie" when he talks about the difference between everyone knowing something specific vs. someone talking openly about that very same thing (spoken vs. unspoken truth). If I remember correctly, the example he uses is a family dinner where one of the women -- who everyone knows has an abusive husband -- shows up with a black eye. She tells everyone she fell off her bike, and everyone nods, understanding the code. But even though everyone knows perfectly well the truth of the matter, if someone were to come out and say it, they would instantly be considered an asshole for doing so.

Bringing the truth out into the open means people can no longer play along and "pretend" that whatever is being coded isn't happening, which means that they might have to seriously consider doing something about it. On top of that it would make them feel unhappy and uncomfortable. (Of course there's more to it than this, such as there being "a time and a place" for everything, as well as not wanting to cause embarrassment, etc.)

In Zizek's example, the code makes much more sense than in mine (especially because in my story all three people are directly involved in what's going on). But assuming my story is an example of a coded lie (I'm not convinced that it is), then what does it say when a group of people have arrived at the point where something so mundane, so incidental, has to be wrapped in a code before it can be handled? That's what I find most interesting.

Anyway, thanks for commenting.

Anonymous said...

You are probably right that compassion is the wrong word for the motivation people have for saying nothing when they are lied to.

You may enjoy this video, an RSA Animate installment about indirect speech acts, along these lines.