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If We All Lie, What Distinguishes a Liar?

We have to stop kidding ourselves about how much we all kid ourselves.

Yesterday there was an exchange between CNN’s John Berman and former White House Press Secretary, Anthony Scaramucci:

Scaramucci said Trump is "like a rascal, like a scoundrel."

"I asked you what do you call someone who likes to lie? You said a scoundrel," Berman replied. "Another thing you could call someone who likes to lie is a liar. Is he a liar?"

"OK, well we both know that he's telling lies. So if you want me to say he's a liar, I'm happy to say he's a liar," Scaramucci said. “Nobody should lie. I'm not a big believer in lying. But politicians happen to lie," he said.

"You want to say that to the camera? To the President?" Berman asks.

"Nobody should lie," Scaramucci said after turning to the look directly into a camera. "But, you know, you're a politician now, so politicians lie when their lips are moving, and so all these people lie. But you should probably dial down the lying because you don't need to. You're doing a great job for the country. So dial that down, and you'll be doing a lot better."

The former White House official said that there's "an entertainment aspect" to the President's lying.


The psychological evidence is in: We all lie, especially to ourselves.* What, if anything then, is the difference between the garden variety liars we all are and the people who deserve to be scorned as liars?

Is it just a question of degree? If so, where does one draw the line? Or is there no line? Should either everyone or no one be scorned as a liar?

The difference between normal, every day lying and being a liar deserves more of our attention. Without an objective distinction, we end up deadlocked, opponents accusing each other of being liars, casting stones from glass houses. We end up with people having it both ways, getting on their high horse about liars (Scaramucci’s, “Nobody should lie. I’m not a big believer in lying,”) while forgiving it (his treatment of Trump as a “scoundrel, rascal”).

And we end up with divided politics like ours today, a large faction condemning the president as a liar and another large faction indifferent, tolerant, or encouraging of the president’s lies since lying is justifiable means to their righteous ends. And yet another faction growing increasingly cynical as though we should all just give up on policing lies, since we all do it.

We tend to have double standards about lying, forgiving lies we like, calling them white lies, tact, being diplomatic, humoring people. But lies we don’t like? They’re sinful. Evil, since no one should ever lie.

We all have split allegiances, on the one hand to unbiased rationality, on the other to hope, faith, and optimism. We wish people would just evaluate everything fairly, on a balanced scale, a level playing field, but then we revere hope, optimism, faith – a thumb on the scale, a tilted field that accentuates the positive and discounts the negative – or us, not those who get in our way. We try to remain hopeful and faithful, but our opponents should just get their act together, drop their bias and face reality.

We know we hate lies because we hate being lied to when we want the truth. We know we hate game-playing, manipulation, and hypocrisy because we hate it when we’re the ones being served up game-playing, manipulation, and hypocrisy that works against our interests.

Does this hatred translate into an unwillingness to lie, game-play, manipulate or be hypocritical? Maybe in theory, but rarely in practice. In practice, we lie.

We also love kindness, politeness, generosity, and civility. Why do we love them? Because we like it when people accommodate us with them when we’re not in the mood to be challenged by people’s honest facts and opinions. Does that translate into our own commitment to love kindness, politeness, generosity, and civility?

In theory, though not in any kind of consistent practice. We’re all deciding when to speak our minds and when to button up. Most of us are far better at dishing out our honesty than taking in other people’s honesty on personal matters. We may think we’re better than average on buttoning up but often that’s because we use underhanded and subtle ways of communicating our truths when we choose. Even a raised eyebrow or sight can be a form of unwelcome honesty.

We chant about integrity. We declare that the truth will set you free. It makes us feel like crusaders for truth, exempted from lying because we have such contempt for it. If the truth always sets us free, what about the many inconvenient truths we try to ignore, deflect, and discount?

More often, lying sets us free. It enables us to cut corners. It removes obstacles. Lying liberates us from the burdensome task of patching things up with people our honesty offends. To deny that a real threat is real frees us from having to address it.

More often than we care to admit, we lie to Peter to stay honest to Paul. There are tradeoffs. Do you lie about being disappointed by some trait your partner has in order to stay true to your partner, or do you maintain your integrity by saying what’s on your mind, even if it will terrify your partner? When your partner asks, “Do you still love me?” do you reply, “Sure but not as much as yesterday because I had a flirtation with a hottie today.”

Lying isn’t just the denial of facts. It’s also a distortion of a fact’s significance. When we can get away with it, we trivialize inconvenient facts and overemphasize the facts that serve us.

There’s no easy formula for deciding when lying is and isn’t OK. As with many moral questions, just confronting the question, seeking a more objective distinction between good and bad lying is a very healthy step in the right direction.

It’s a question that should be on all of our minds. What’s the objective distinction between good and bad lies – not your subjective distinction whereby you get to claim that anyone who lies for your cause is an adorable scoundrel, white-liar, and everyone who threatens your cause is a bald-faced liar?

We often hear that power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. In the original quote, it was power tends to corrupt.

“Tends to” makes a huge difference and not just with power. Lies tend to corrupt. They don’t always. Sometimes they’re exactly what a situation demands.

Absolute lying, however, corrupts absolutely. Perhaps then, the problem is absolute liars. People who will say anything to sidestep any inconvenience or challenge to their authority.

Many people are thrilled by absolute liars for their cause, authoritarian leaders who get away with everything. It’s an enviable liberty. That may be what John Berman wanted when trying to get the Mooch to admit Trump is a liar, and what tried to sidestep with his euphemistic attempt to describe Trump as an entertaining rascal or scoundrel.

For those of us who aren’t absolute liars, there’s a prayer to heed, a wise quest to pursue lifelong:

Grant me the integrity to speak necessary, inconvenient truths, the diplomacy to humor people in their comforting safe lies, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Here's a great country tune that sets the right balance for facing this tough question:


Anthony Scaramucci: President Trump is a Liar.

* Ariely, Dan (2013) The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How we lie to everyone, especially ourselves. NYC Harper.