DESCRIPTION: Jack reads from a recent blog post about how liars, not being able to twist the reality of things, have to twist themselves in order to pretend that things are different from how they really are. This is an extended discussion that’s highly relevant to the direction this podcast has been headed.
Text of the post read and discussed in this episode.
From Jack’s blog at jackpelham.com.
We all live in a real world. It was here before we got here, and it will be here when we’re gone. And it has rules that do not depend the least bit on our own opinions, wishes, beliefs, traditions, habits, perceptions, concerns, or abilities. For example, gravity is always on whether we like it or not—whether we understand it or not—even whether it hurts us or not—-. The law of cause and effect is always on—even when the effects hurt us. The sustaining of life takes work—even when we “don’t feel like” working. Truth exists, even when it hurts our feelings or causes us inconvenience.
There is a certain fabric to reality—metaphorically speaking. It has certain qualities and properties. It works in certain ways. It is what it is. And most people spend a lifetime learning about it to some extent or another—learning how to navigate this real world. We make our mistakes, and we make improvements, and we learn our lessons—some more easily than others. That is, after living here a while, we “learn the ropes”, so to speak—we learn how things work. We figure it out. And to some extent, we adjust our own thinking and beliefs to better map onto the reality that surrounds us.
But some people refuse to let the rules be the rules—at least on some topics. They are unwilling to adjust their own thinking and beliefs to fit the real world, and prefer instead to act as if reality is different from what it is. They take a twisted view of things, believing against reality—against the evidence and against sound reasoning. And to do this, they have to lie.
They lie to themselves and to others. They say things that aren’t true. They spin. They exaggerate. They omit pertinent facts. They dismiss, ignore, and excuse. They pretend sometimes that their deliberate misdeeds were mere mistakes–or that they were somehow “justified” on account of some special circumstances that don’t really justify them. They assign bad motives to those who have none. They respond in ways that are askew from the questions and challenges put to them. They manipulate or encourage others to believe the lies. That is, they want others to reject reality, too. They want company, but also, what they seem to really want is to be left alone to play their game unopposed—unchallenged—unquestioned— unexamined—unnoticed. They don’t want the light of truth to be shined in their direction. And many of them are even willing to mistreat others in various ways to make it stop.
They’ve got themselves in quite a bind as reality does not match up with their own stubborn view of the world. It’s a miserable existence as they constantly look for others who will believe the lies alongside them–and then, whey they have found a like-minded friend, it’s not long until that like-minded deceit in the new friend bites them, too, and the friendship is fractured—ironically, on account of the same type of behavior that the first person pretends is acceptable in this real world.
They are a menace to society.
But it’s worse than that, for there are so many of them that they pretty much constitute our society. And thus is ours a menacing society—a menace to those few who seem to chance upon a more accepting attitude towards reality.
Now don’t get me wrong; most liars don’t lie about everything. They only lie about some things. And surely, some swim in the deep end of the corruption pool, while others only dabble in the shallow end. But it is, after all, the same pool. To some, it is the pool of pretending against reality, and to others, the pool of raging against reality with all their might, and to still others, it is the pool of recruiting as many as possible to join in on the pretending and raging.
But it’s the same pool, and what you do in it is up to you….maybe.
But here’s a question: What happens when you stay in that pool long enough that it begins to color your outlook on the world? What happens when you completely lose the everyday, common-sensical skills of ascertaining what is true, and of differentiating between what is real and what is unreal? Well, in that case, what you do in the pool—while it may still be “up to you”, as I wrote in the prior paragraph—is much more likely to be a matter of habit-based conditioning—of an automatic response of the “Autonomous Mind” (or of the “Fast” mental processes of what some cognitive scientists, such as Daniel Kahneman, call “System 1“)—rather than of your deliberate and well-considered decision making. That is, you operate as if on “cruise control” or “autopilot”, rather than by making well-considered-and-responsible real-time decisions. And at that point, for you to get out of the habit would take extra deliberate effort of the sort that most people are not very willing to endure.
And in this way, millions have twisted themselves into reality-dysfunctional people. Cognitive scientist Keith Stanovich coined the term “dysrationalia” to describe the situation in which people who have the mental faculties required for rational thinking fail anyway to think rationally. They can, but they don’t. They’d have to rearrange some things in their minds, but they don’t. They’d have to be more deliberate and responsible in managing their thoughts and beliefs, but they aren’t. And this has become their habit, as has also their lack of concern about the quality of their own internal cognitive processes.
It’s happened to us all in various ways—some very serious, and some very minor. But who among us ever gets out of that pool on purpose? Who ever decides that they don’t want to believe anything that’s false—no matter what it might be, or how harmless it might seem? If my observations of this world are accurate in this way, there are very few people who ever take such a deliberate stance on reality. In fact, my very-rough-and-modestly-educated estimate is that it’s about one person in 100,000 who has such a paradigm. And even if I’m off by an order of magnitude, that number could be one in 10,000 or one in a million. And 1:10,000 is a pretty lousy ratio for a society, too.
So let me put that last paragraph in perspective. If I’m right about the 1:100,000 ratio, that would mean that only about 3,200 people in the United States have this internal paradigm of wanting to believe nothing that is false. That’s about one person per county. (There are 3,141 counties in this country.) Or if the 1:10,000 ratio is more accurate, that’s 32,000 people. And that would equate to roughly one such person per city. (There are about 30,000 cities/towns in the US.)
And what about all the rest? Well, they would be the folks who are hanging on to at least one false belief that they know—or should know—to be false. Many, it seems, will pick and choose what to be rational about. Some, for example, will be surprisingly rational about politics, but not about religion—or vice versa.
But this post isn’t about irrationality in general, but about liars. Right?
Well, I’m not so sure it’s easy to make the distinction between the two. Sure, the standard definition of “liar” is one who deliberately deceives others (as opposed to being merely mistaken), but what if they’re doing the same thing to themselves? What if they keep on telling themselves things that they know, or should know, are false? What if they continue manipulating their own world views in such ways?
Even if a person starts down that bad road when young, shouldn’t they be able to figure it out over the decades of their lives that they have got some things out of place? Shouldn’t they perceive some patterns? Shouldn’t they learn some principles merely by observing cause and effect?
I think they should. Isn’t it obvious?
The person who decides on the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is what I call a Realitan. (Believe it or not, such people are so unimportant to our culture that we have no regular word to describe them—so I had to make up my own word.) But there’s already a word for people who chose to corrupt the truth of a matter—to pretend it is other than what it is. That word is liar.
And for so many, this is considered a completely legitimate way of life—but only if they don’t think about it for long. If they did think about it for long, they’d realize that they themselves hate to be lied to (at least in some circumstances). And having realized that, they’d have to deal with the moral question of how it could be wrong when others do it, but not when they do it themselves.
That is, they could always choose not to deal with that moral question. That is, they could choose not to deal with “the whole truth” of the matter.
In his most excellent book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, Dan Ariely discusses how a great many people will lie, cheat, and steal, but how they regulate themselves—and how this regulation is typically triggered when it becomes difficult for the liar/cheat/thief to feel good about him- or herself as a person. When self-scoring on extremely difficult math tests (in a situation in which they thought they could get away with cheating), almost nobody would give himself a score of 100%, because they would think that’s too big a cheat—and a good person wouldn’t cheat that much. But they will cheat to a lesser degree, and are particularly prone to making excuses about it. “It was for a good cause” tends to be one of the favorites, as I recall. The excuse, of course, helps them to feel better about themselves. It was “for the kids“, or it was “to keep people from panicking” or it was “for your own good“, and so forth. Even so, it was still lying, cheating, or stealing, and they can’t feel good about themselves if they go around saying, “I’m a liar/cheat/thief.” So they say, “It was for a good cause.”
And that’s a lie—perhaps not because it’s completely false, but because it’s not “the whole truth” of the matter. In other words, “It was for a good cause” is the redacted version of “Well, I lied/cheated/stole, but at least I can feel better about myself if I cite a ‘good cause’ for it.”
Why not just be honest instead? What would we lose from that?
Indeed, what do we gain from lying, cheating, and stealing that doesn’t require warfare against our own minds? We do these things in the moment, and then we have to fight matters of conscience, of negative consequences, of cognitive dissonance, and of broken relationships afterward.
When we lie, we don’t twist reality; we twist ourselves. Reality is what it is, regardless of the view we take of it. Consider this chestnut:
QUESTION: How many legs does a cow have if you count the tail as a leg?
CORRECTION: No, it has four. The tail is not a leg, even if you say it is.
The one person will think it’s fine to view reality however it pleases us to view it, but the other will see the wisdom in learning to view reality as it actually exists—to the best of our ability to perceive and to interpret it. The liar assumes the latitude to do the former, while the Realitan assumes the moral and cognitive responsibility to do the latter.
What the liar does requires the liar to live a contorted life—a twisted existence that insists on re-interpreting things into something other than what they truly are. And there is not one of this who has not done this at least once, on some topic or another. Meanwhile there’s not one of us who has done it on every topic, either—for some truths are indeed useful, even to dishonest people. But the road that is seldom found is that road that, if followed long enough, would lead one to a life of complete honesty. It is a road of untwisting one’s bad habits—even the habits the person doesn’t yet realize he has! It is a road of discovery—or, as Thomas Jefferson put the idea that I’m referring to (emphasis added):
“…here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead.”Extract from Thomas Jefferson to William Roscoe, Monticello Dec. 27, 1820.
Life on this Earth could be for us an adventure in learning reality, but for so many, it is a twisted exercise in stubborn denial of those aspects of reality that we don’t like so much.