Lies, and the lying liars who tell them
Talk about a pointless exercise. Pollsters recently conducted a survey to find out what percentage of the population thinks lying is ever acceptable. How can you conduct an accurate poll about lying? You gotta figure that at least half of the people you question will lie to you. And how do you start such a survey: Question No. 1 -- Are you a liar?
See? From there the whole survey goes downhill. If the respondent is a liar and says he isn't, the poll is ruined. Worse, if the respondent is a liar and says he IS. And just what is a liar, anyway? Does telling just one lie a day make you a liar? Because we all do that within five minutes of getting out of bed. ("Good morning," he lied.)
The Associated Press poll crashed upon those very shoals as reported in this very paper recently. "Half of respondents said lying was never justified," surveyors reported. "Yet in the same poll up to two-thirds said it was OK to lie in certain situations, like protecting someone's feelings." (Or, perhaps, answering questions from a pollster about lying.)
One problem is that there are so many flavors of lies these days that the mere word "lie" ceases to have meaning. President Clinton helped muddy the waters of exactly what a lie is when he told a grand jury "it depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is." Hillary Clinton's own grand jury appearances caused columnist William Safire to brand her a "congenital liar." (Commentators later claimed he meant to say "congenital lawyer.")
But you can't blame the Clintons for upping the ante in the Washington, D.C., lying game. The old saying is that it is easy to tell when someone in Washington is lying because their lips are moving. In fact, it's generally agreed in the nation's capital that a lie is not a lie unless you are under oath. And even then, as Bill showed, there's some wiggle room.
Clinton was convicted of perjury, which sounds a lot worse than lying. But perjury is just a lie wearing a powdered wig. (Clinton lost his law license for committing perjury, and since then his life has been one long living hell in which he has become a multimillionaire, has an entirely new fleet of girlfriends and might become secretary-general of the United Nations. How he can live with himself, I don't know.)
Mark Twain allegedly said, "There are liars, damned liars and statisticians." (Pollsters were yet unknown.)
But Twain was lying, or dissembling. Or prevaricating. Or equivocating. Or telling a "white lie." Or fibbing. Or paltering. (Few people "palter" anymore, although during Twain's time paltering -- acting deceitfully -- was the rage.)
Just as there are all kinds of lies, there are all kinds of liars. There are pathological liars, congenital liars, habitual liars, occasional liars, malicious liars and, the worst kind, bad liars.
Everyone hates bad liars. They make the world uncomfortable. If you are going to lie, at least put some effort into it. A kid in junior high school in Alabama once said he wrote the Beatles song "A Hard Day's Night." It was such a bad lie I didn't know how to respond. To this day I wonder what high position in Washington, D.C., he holds.
"Ethics columnist" Randy Cohen was quoted as saying lying "not only is justified, but it is sometimes a moral duty."
Putting aside the fact that the term "ethics columnist" is some kind of a lie itself, Andy has a point. He says if your wife is on the way to receive a Nobel Prize and asks you if she looks fat, it would be cruel to say anything other than, "You look fabulous." (Not only would it be cruel, but I think it's against the law in 48 states.)
A quibbler (yet another type of liar!) might argue that your response would depend on the type of Nobel Prize she was getting. If she's getting the Nobel Peace Prize, lying to her about her appearance is justified. If she is getting the prize for physics and she happens to weigh 632 pounds, you could probably get away with saying, "Fat? Honey you're creating your own gravity."
So remember, the truth might set you free, but if a pollster asks you whether lying is OK, chase him off the porch with a shotgun.
, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists' 2004 First Place Award winner for humor writing, appears Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org