I was speaking to a friend of mine over the holidays about Marilyn Chandler McEntyre's book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. In one of those too-short conversations that take place over coffee and between pews after church, he told me how he felt underwhelmed after reading the book.
He said that while he felt the book was right to point out that our culture is indeed rife with lies and half-truths, he ended up by saying: "so . . . what? We like to be lied to. We lie to ourselves all the time. Where do we go from here?"
He has a point. So much of our public conversations are rife with half-truths, shading, and outright lies. This is especially true for political life and increasingly true in economic life. Talking points and marketing are intentionally shaped to provide half-truths—to provide a story that is not always true, and which is often deliberately false.
But while it's easy to sit back in our easy chairs and self-righteously judge our politicians and the marketing managers of L'Oreal and Nike, the truth is that we—you and me—are as much participants in those lies, and thus as responsible, as those who tell them.
As Pamela Myer notes in a very interesting TED talk, lying is a cooperative activity. The cooperative venture starts from a very young age. By the time you are twelve years old, you are swimming in a vast spoiled sea of lies, told to you by not only the big bad government, but by your mom and dad, your friends and your colleagues. And, if we're honest with one another, we feel that those lies and half-truths are necessary. We don't really want to tell our children what happened in that horrific incident. We don't really want the government to tell us what our debts mean for future generations. We want the advertising agency to tell us that we're lean, sexy, creative, and industrious.
Really, where do we go from here?
I think the most important point to note for those of us who struggle with this seemingly intractable reality is to acknowledge the greatest lie of all: when we tell ourselves this soup of lies in which we all swim will not really affect us at our core; that it will not shape our desires, our hearts. Like second-hand smoke, the more time we spend in the haze of untruths, the less likely we are to realize that it's really killing us. There is a line—however circuitous—between the lies our culture tells, the lies we tell ourselves, and our desires. And there is a direct line between our desires and our characters and from there to our hearts. There is a reason why Satan is called the father of lies.
But, thankfully, lying is not our native language. If the line between our hearts and our words can run in a negative direction, thankfully it can also run the other way.
Which way do we go from here? Perhaps a good place to start would be to examine ourselves. A culture of truth—a culture where the lies of states, businesses, and other spheres of life have no power—starts with a heart desirous of truth. How do we get there? I think we know the way.