Thursday, February 14, 2008

Lies, the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, and American Society

The United States this week witnessed a spectacle perhaps without precedent in American history. We watched on national television in sworn testimony, a witness commit perjury before a Congressional panel. Two men sat before members of Congress and gave testimony under oath that was diametrically opposite to that of the other. Someone lied before our very eyes. And it’s quite likely that this unthinkable act will go unpunished.

While the Roger Clemens sideshow certainly made for great drama and wonderful news copy, I’m more interested in the societal implications of the deceit pervasive in the story. If Clemens is telling the truth, then his accuser, Brian Mcnamee has not only lied to the commission investigating steroids in baseball, but to a congressional committee and a full congressional panel. If, on the other hand, he’s telling the truth, then Roger Clemens joins the cadre of baseball players who have misled and deceived the American public for many years, and the smaller group of players who continue to falsely protest their innocence.

Most frightening – and interesting, is that if Clemens is lying, we’re not really surprised. We expect our public figures to lie. None other than the President of the United States lied to a grand jury. The city of Detroit recently learned that the Mayor of Detroit lied under oath in court about his personal life. Who believes any of the promises being made by our presidential prospects? Who takes any public figure at his word anymore? When was the last time anyone made a business deal – and invested money – on a handshake? What happened to our trust?

Every time a person lies he not only affects himself, but his surrounding society. We take for granted the inherent wrongness of stating untruths – of lying – whether in the courts or just the course of daily life. But when we see public figures lying to us and fail to react; when we allow others’ untruths to go unnoticed -- that behavior grows in acceptance and slowly infiltrates the public consciousness.

In addition to the many works that the Chafetz Chaim wrote about lashon hara – slander and evil speech, he wrote a work called שפת תמים - (pure lips) about the terrible evils of fakery, deception and lying – and some terrible truth about the nature of many Jews who cheat in business. In chapter six while describing the different levels of liars he writes,

ויש אחרים..שבספוריהם ודבוריהם גם כן נמצא בהם מתערובות הכזב, אך בלי כונה, כי לא ישיתו לבם לחקור בעת שמעם לידע הדברים במכון, ואסור שקר אין חמור בעיניהם כל כך ליזהר אפילו מתערבתו. על כן בבואם לספר אחר כך הדבר יערבו בו מן השקרים כמו שיזדמן להם אז. וגם זו מדה רעה, כי אנשים כאלו מרגלים בשקר בהרחב הזמן, עד שנעשה להם כמו טבע...

and there are others...who in their stories and words are also found an intermingling of falseness, yet this is without intent, for they did not set their hearts to investigate [the words] at the time that they heard them to know the matters precisely. And, the prohibition against falsehood is not so stringent in their eyes that they are careful even from partial falsehood. Therefore, when they subsequently come to mention the matter, they will intermingle the lies as they present themselves. This too is an evil attribute, for people like this become accustomed to falsehood in the expanse of time, until in becomes natural to them.
Our surroundings, culture and society affect us. What then does that say about a culture that no longer cares about the meaning of truth? How soon will that filter down into our daily interactions, until Americans can no longer trust each other in even the most casual of interactions?