Lying about lying

“Wherever there is coercion, lies follow as certainly as night follows day. That is why, in our society, children lie all the time and the parents tell them that lying is bad and punish them for it, even though the parents themselves lie all the time too and know that it is not true that it is always wrong to lie. Not only do parents lie all the time to their children, they often punish their children for not lying.”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge


From the archives: First published in Taking Children Seriously 29, 1999

On 16th January, 1999, Henry Hyde closed his Senate address calling for the President’s impeachment by reading a letter from a child “in the third grade,” on the subject of lying. The child suggested that as a punishment for lying to the American people, President Clinton should be made to write an essay on the theme Why it is Wrong to Lie.

This platitude is so familiar to us, especially in the context of children, that it received little or no critical attention despite the saturation media coverage of every aspect of these proceedings. In particular, no one seems to have noticed the colossal irony in forcing a child, or a President, to reaffirm his allegiance to this universal truth: lying is wrong. Step back for a moment, try to see beyond your own childhood conditioning, and consider whether that really is a universal truth, or not. Surely not! When, in 1944, the Allies systematically spread lies about the location of the D-Day landings, they were doing right, not wrong, weren’t they? When a spy revealed the truth of that matter to the Germans, it was a profoundly evil act, wasn’t it? The fact is that telling a lie, like throwing a stone, is neither right nor wrong in itself. Its morality depends on the circumstances. The intentions, the obligations of the parties concerned, whether good or harm is done—all these things are relevant to whether a lie is right or wrong, just as the morality of throwing a stone depends on what you are throwing it at, and for what purpose, and at what risk of harm to other people or to yourself, and so on.

The strange thing is that everyone knows this—every functioning adult, that is. In particular, Henry Hyde knows it, and President Clinton knows it. So if the President were to write an essay “explaining why it is wrong to lie,” his explanation would necessarily be a cynical concoction, designed to give specious justification to a known falsehood; that is to say, it would itself be a pack of lies. So the President’s punishment for lying to the nation would be to write a letter to the nation lying to the nation.

Or more precisely, lying to the nation’s children—for the adults are in no danger of believing such an absurdity. But it gets worse. For in a postscript, the child’s father explained how the letter had come to be written. He had forced his son to write it as a punishment for lying. Since it was forced, perhaps it was a lie too—perhaps the son is really a staunch supporter of the President, and opposed impeachment—who knows? Anyway, the father went on to explain that his son is now having difficulty understanding that lying is wrong, because of the President’s bad example.

Can that assertion be anything other than yet another barefaced lie? Are we really supposed to believe that the child had lied to his father because the President had lied about his affair? Or that the father seriously believes that this was the cause? Surely everybody, including the father and the child, including the Republicans bringing the case, know that that is a complete fantasy, invented on the spur of the moment to make a facile point about the political issue of the moment. But they asserted it anyway. Why? And why were they in no danger of being contradicted? For the same reason they tell their children that it is bad to lie and punish them when they lie. Because there is an enforced separation between the values people have and the values they espouse, and this separation is especially sharp when it comes to raising children.

Wherever there is coercion, lies follow as certainly as night follows day. That is why, in our society, children lie all the time and the parents tell them that lying is bad and punish them for it, even though the parents themselves lie all the time too and know that it is not true that it is always wrong to lie.

Not only do parents lie all the time to their children, they often punish their children for not lying. Most parents force their children to lie. For example, they insist that their children express gratitude they don’t feel, for gifts they don’t want. Imagine what would happen if in response to a question about the meal Great Aunt Griselda has served, the children answer truthfully, that it was the most disgusting meal they have ever had the misfortune to be served. Just as you know what would happen—severe punishment—so do they, and that is why they lie, and are rewarded later by praise for their tact and good manners.

On Larry King Live on CNN, Linda Tripp implied that she disapproved of Monica Lewinsky’s lie, saying she “has a different moral compass.” But what was Linda Trip herself doing when she taped her conversations with Monica Lewinsky, if not lying by omission?

But it just isn’t true that lying is always wrong, is it?

Keeping a confidence, for example, often involves lying. When a reporter asked Congresswoman Mary Bono about her (and Cher’s) ex-husband Sonny’s prescription drug problem and other embarrassing issues, she felt obliged to tell the truth. Cher is said to be very angry that Mary just couldn’t bring herself to lie to protect Sonny’s reputation in death. Would that have been morally wrong? Mary Bono admitted that perhaps she should have refused to answer some of the questions. But sometimes merely refusing to answer a question is not enough, is it?

“Did Sonny have a drug problem?”

“I prefer not to answer that.”

That is the same as saying yes, so to avoid giving an affirmative answer, she would need to have looked the reporter in the eye and lied through her teeth.

I can remember several occasions in my own life in which I have been asked direct questions about other people where, had I not lied, I would have given the questioners information that was not mine to share. Indeed, had I even hesitated before answering, that would have violated confidences. I didn’t. I told downright lies. And I am quite sure that I did the right thing, and that not lying would have been very, very wrong. Moreover, I personally would think twice about trusting anyone who does not share my view that lying is not always wrong, and sometimes the only moral course. I might end up with a friend like Mary Bono.

The British Parliament has quite an obsession about ministers “not lying to Parliament.” But even they make exceptions—one of them being where a lie is necessary to protect a legitimate secret. For instance, on one famous occasion when a British spy was arrested in Moscow on spying charges, and the Minister was asked about it in Parliament, he lied, saying indignantly that the man was just an innocent businessman. Later, when the truth emerged, no one called for the Minister’s resignation. No one said he should have been a little less indignant in his denial. That would have been insane, wouldn’t it?

A President who would strictly never lie or deliberately mislead anyone would probably be committing treason the moment he started negotiating with any foreign power. Civil servants who wouldn’t lie would violate their oath under the Official Secrets Act. A company employee who would never lie might destroy years of hard work by her colleagues who trusted her.

Lying is sometimes not merely not wrong, but right.

Of course there are many circumstances under which it is indeed wrong to lie. Perhaps the most important of these is when parents or other trusted adults (including politicians!) are talking to children, especially about issues of morality. Children are trying to build up a good set of moral theories. They have a right to be told the truth about morality. It is wrong to mislead them about their parents’ real values and beliefs. It is wrong to mislead them about right and wrong. Henry Hyde did the wrong thing when he used that particular argument.

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1999, ‘Lying about lying’, Taking Children Seriously 29, ISSN 1351-5381, pp. 4-5,

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