An old tome fell out of the bookshelf while I cruised through titles searching, ironically, for something new to teach this fall: Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, by Sissela Bok. Bok’s premise is that we are all liars. What should matter, she argues, is when we tell the truth. It’s one thing to say you’re having a great day when your day has been mediocre at best. It’s quite another to tell your shareholders that your company expects record earnings during the next quarter so you can sell your stock, secretly, at a profit.
For Bok, “clearly intended lies” own a gravitas that little white lies do not. Yet any form of deception, from changing the subject to deploying vague euphemisms, can have a significant, detrimental impact. The simple solution would be to tell the truth all the time. That may smack of hopeless naivete, but when you act with integrity, everything else is easy. It may also help to distinguish between important facts (specific truths involving person, place, and time) from truths (values we hold dear).
Lying was published in 1978, which means that it does not include any ways to cope with the information overload brought on first by cable news and then by the internet. If you were to add a chapter to her book, how would you equip readers to discern truths in the media on which they rely? Have we gotten to the point where ideology determines both fact and truth?