Colson: Why lie? Because we can, apparently

John Colson
Hit & Run

When I saw the cover headline in the June edition of National Geographic magazine, my very first thought was of President Donald Trump, followed quickly by Richard Nixon and, interestingly enough, the many developers I have covered over the years petitioning city and county governments for approvals.

As I read through the piece, my thoughts widened to include Frank Abagnale Jr., the real-life subject of the film “Catch Me If You Can,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio; former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, and many more, some of whom are named in the story, some drawn from my own experience as a reporter and a human being.

And the headline?

“Why We Lie.”

Catchy, eh?

I’m not sure how many people get their National Geo from news stands, but I am sure that the yellow border around that central headline is likely to be pretty effective.

The article itself is an example of the magazine’s recent departure from its historic subject matter — photos of faraway places and the people who inhabit them, of the deeps of the sea and the monsters that live there, that sort of thing — to venture into the social and even the political realms of human endeavor.

With closely researched, highly informative writing to go along with intriguing images, the mag has been one of my favorites since I first subscribed some 30 to 40 years ago, and I regularly recommend it to friends and acquaintances.

As I am right now.

Because we are in the middle of a transformative time, at least here in the USA, where lying has become such a basically normal approach to so many aspects of life that it’s a little frightening. From ads on TV about medicine that might kill you before they cure you, to politicians’ rationale for ripping up the nation’s social safety net in order to line the pockets of corporations and the well-to-do, lying might well be regarded as a new kind of truth.

Politics, of course, always has been a well-recognized arena where lying is nearly a requisite skill set, everywhere around the globe.

Trump’s mastery of the art of lying undoubtedly is something that began so long ago that it is hardly surprising that he can’t tell truth from fiction. It’s become almost a common denominator in stories analyzing his administration, his behavior and his techniques for achieving his goals, to start with the basic allegation that lying is at the heart of it all.

According to the article, we pick up the skill at lying between the ages of 2 and 5 years, as a way of testing the boundaries of our world and learning what we can get away with.

Trump, who by many accounts was essentially an out-of-control kid from the get-go, clearly took the lessons learned from lying deep into his heart and soul.

Trump, of course, is not alone in this. We all did it, to one degree or another, as we gradually figured out how to operate in this strange world.

And apparently we all get better at it as we age, some by limiting our lies to little white ones that help us get through each day but don’t have big-picture consequences, some by refining the skill so that it becomes more than second nature, and sometimes even our first nature.

If we’re truthful with ourselves, we can all recognize where we, as individuals, fall in this spectrum of deceit — whether our lies are small ones or big ones, whether they grease the skids of life for us in inconsequential ways or whether they are the kinds of lies that can get us or people around us into serious trouble or do significant social or economic damage to others or the world.

For instance, I’m pretty sure that many of the investment bankers who engineered the massive speculative mess that turned into the Great Recession of 2008-09, most of whom have managed to escape either detection or prosecution for their roles, knew full well that what they were doing was not only dangerous but based on a nasty web of lies and selfish double-dealing.

But they justified it all somehow, and we all know the results — the economy is still reeling from the fallout of those lies.

But back to the National Geo cover headline — the question of why we lie.

The plain truth seems to be that we lie because we believe we can, without facing negative consequences, and that life seems to confirm that belief in us.

The article runs through any number of science-based examinations of the mechanics of lying, and concludes that modern digital communications has opened up “a new frontier for deceit.”

If the Twitter-verse is any gauge of that conclusion, I’d say the writer is onto something.

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