Violence is, at its core, about controlling other people. It’s perhaps the rawest expression of control. Pacifists have done an enormous amount of work detailing all the ways that violence wrecks havoc upon our society, and they only thing they’re wrong about is claiming that violence is, therefore, never justified.
Most of society accepts the need for self-defense — that is, using force to counter force. When someone is attempting to control you, it’s reasonable to attempt to curtail that behavior on their part. Violence isn’t the only — not even the most common — form of control, however, and people sometimes forget that violence is often an acceptable response to people utilizing other methods to control our bodies and our actions. Fighting back against systems of control is a reasonable and ethical thing to do.
Lying is also, at its core, about controlling other people.
Lying is not the moral equivalent of physical or institutional violence. But people make their decisions based on the best available information, and lying to people is a way of non-consensually limiting their decisions. It’s a form of manipulation, similar in many regards to violence. This is why people hate dishonest advertisement, for example. It’s a form of social control, and we know it, and we despise it. We naturally despise anyone controlling us without our consent.
I won’t lie to anyone I wouldn’t punch if I could get away with punching. Or, to put it less blithely, I won’t lie to anyone who isn’t in the process (consciously or not) of attempting to control me. Go ahead and lie to cops, lie to jailers, lie to misogynists and racists. Lie to your abuser. Lie in order to stay safe on the street. Lie to your shitty boss. Better yet, don’t listen to me about who to lie to. My ethical framework doesn’t need to be yours.
There are no white lies. (I mean, besides “the United States of America isn’t founded on genocide, built by slavery, and perpetuated by economic and military imperialism;” that’s a White lie). Not all lies have the same severity of consequence, sure, but all lies give someone false information. Come on, we’ve all seen sitcoms. You lie about something minor, and someone believes you, so they go through their life making decisions based on that false information. That’s not a nice thing to do to someone.
Our society is built on lies, the same as it’s built on violence. We’ve normalized both — though some violence has been externalized into entities like the police. We’re expected to lie all the time, even to people we care about.
I suppose that a childhood (and often, adulthood) of being subordinate to others has trained us to lie and to make excuses. It’s a reasonable skill to have developed, because lying to authority is a virtue. Since so much of our lives are ruled by authorities, we are stuck lying quite often. It’s hard work to remember not to.
Let’s say your friend invites you to her birthday party, but you don’t feel like going, because you’re an introvert or because someone who makes you uncomfortable is likely to be there. Social niceties require you to lie and say you’re not feeling well, or that you’re busy. Honesty would, instead, require you to say that you just don’t feel up to it.
When I talk about honesty as a virtue, I don’t mean to promote what I’ve heard called “radical honesty.” Being an honest person doesn’t mean telling everyone every negative thing that crosses your mind. People who pride themselves on being brutally honest are usually just drawn to being brutal and ought not be trusted. People don’t need your input to be their best selves; they just need you to stop feeding them false information. You might not need to tell your friend whose party it is “what’s wrong with you, that you’re still friends with that person” in order to be honest. (Or you might.)
Honesty doesn’t even necessarily imply being forthcoming. My life is not an open book. If someone wants to know what name I was given when I was born, well, too bad. Or to use the example of the party, if my friend insists for more information about why I’m not going, I might not tell her.
Honesty gets messy. I don’t lie to my parents, because I’m an adult and my parents don’t express power over me anymore. Love and friendship are based on honesty — because they are based on respect for the other’s autonomy — and the only reason I would have to lie to my parents would be to avoid uncomfortable conversations that might put distance between us. There are certainly things I am not forthcoming about to them, and certain questions I might evade, but I won’t lie.
This all might be the wrong way to express it. Lying is about taking control of people, and sometimes we need to take control of one another. When I ran this idea past one of my best friends, he told me about the time he got arrested at an anti-police demonstration. He finally made it home at three or four in the morning. His partner, recovering from chemo and not out of the proverbial woods, asked how the demonstration went. He told her it went fine. That was a lie. He feels comfortable about that lie, though, because he felt it necessary to not worry her with her health on the line. I’m not convinced, but I’m also not him, and I’m not her, and I don’t know that I can make a judgment about that.
I have anxiety problems, to put it mildly. If someone I care about lies to me while I’m panicking, to pull me out of that panic, that might be something I’d forgive them for. There are people in my life I would restrain from self-harm, because I’d be willing to exert control over them in some specific and temporary circumstances. I don’t know if that’s right or if that’s wrong, but it’s something I’d be willing to do.
Of all the various ethics I’ve developed for myself, this idea of honesty seems far and away the most controversial. If you have to lie to someone in order to feel safe, then by all means, lie. But for myself, if I know someone has lied to me, even about petty things, I assume that they don’t respect me or my autonomy. Because in the immortal words of those kids on Stranger Things: friends don’t lie.
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