Lying in our time
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, April 24, 2001)

Much has been written about management's exploitation of labour, but who among us has the originality to describe labour's exploitation of management? Step forward, Gabrielle Bauer, talented Canadian memoirist and job-hopper. She's had 50 or so jobs, most of them acquired by exploiting the innocent gullibility of employers. As she tells it, her job-hunting strategy involved unremitting prevarication. She lied about her experience, she lied about her plans for the future, and she lied about anything else that came up.

Her engaging book, Waltzing the Tango: Confessions of an Out-of-Step Boomer (Hounslow Press), recounts an improvised, meandering life. Bright and literate, she wandered from job to job before finally settling down to freelance writing, marriage and parenthood. Her book adds a notably frank document to the history of lying in our time.

Are people less truthful today than they were, say, a generation ago? No one can tell, but lying is pervasive. Five years ago, after I wrote a piece about Seinfeld, an astute reader pointed out something I had missed: All four major characters on that program are inveterate liars. They lie often, and lie without remorse. In the next Seinfeld I saw, Elaine was complaining that she hated the film of The English Patient while everyone else loved it. Her boss adored it, and asked her opinion. Naturally, being a Seinfeld character, she claimed she hadn't seen it, to avoid disagreeing with him. (She was punished: He insisted on taking her to see it right away.)

It puzzled me that I had never thought about this persistent theme of Seinfeld. Is lying so commonplace that it's hard to notice? Sometimes evil becomes so imbedded in life that no one remarks on it; slavery in ancient Greece is the famous example.

The newspapers are full of political lying. Our Prime Minister seems to think nothing of changing crucial details in his story. Bill Clinton was the most blatant fibber ever to occupy the White House, and Christopher Hitchens gave his book on Clinton an apt title, No One Left to Lie To. William Goldman called his most recent manual on screenwriting, Which Lie Did I Tell? Goldman once waited in a hotel room while a movie producer talked on the phone. At one point the producer suddenly forgot what he had said earlier, put his hand over the mouthpiece, and whispered to Goodman, "Bill ... Bill ...Which lie did I tell?" There was no shame. He was just trying to make his stories consistent.

In 1978, Sissela Bok of Harvard wrote a much-praised book, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, and these days journalists sometimes call her to ask whether we now have more lying than ever. She doesn't know, but she can explain how untruth becomes pervasive. Members of certain professions decide that, while honesty is indeed the best policy, exceptions must be made for professional reasons. Doctors may lie to patients, journalists may lie to get stories, police and prosecutors may lie to suspected wrongdoers. The other night the writers on NYPD Blue had one of their most admirable characters, Detective Baldwin Jones, tell a rookie cop: "You can lie" -- providing it's for a good cause.

Because such people don't imagine the effects of lies, Bok says, they pollute the social atmosphere. We consider cases one at a time, justifying each of them separately but neglecting their cumulative impact. We also fail to understand the corrupting effect on the character of the individual who does the lying.

At some point Bauer began thinking like Bok. Over the years she had developed a collection of lines that potential employers, those poor suckers, eagerly ate up. "Oh, yes, I believe in teamwork." "Overtime is not a problem." "I'm looking to make a long-term contribution." The lies poured smoothly off her tongue. At one point she was looking for a short-term job, a few months' work to finance a holiday in Europe. Q: "Can you see yourself staying with us for the next several years?" A: "Oh, yes, definitely, I'm looking for job security." Q: "Are you planning any holidays this year?" A: "Nope." She got the job.

Later, she speaks of a time when "I wove some new plotlines into my résumé and mailed it off." In this job they wanted someone in touch with popular culture. Bauer, who rarely even glances at television, somehow convinced them she was a constant viewer and even a People magazine reader. But when she went to work, surrounded by people who truly loved to talk about what had happened the night before on TV, she began to think that maybe it wasn't such a good idea to pretend that you were something you weren't. "I started to believe there might be an advantage in presenting yourself as you actually were, or close to that, to your interviewers."

When she met her future husband, she discovered something odd about him: He was an unconditional truth-teller who wouldn't lie even to avoid an unattractive social event. "I watched, and almost in spite of myself, found myself changing. Somewhere during our courtship, I lost the ability to lie my way to a job." That's one of several happy endings in her book.

The greatest movie about lying is Rashomon, made by Akira Kurosawa in 1950. In 12th-century Japan, a woman is raped and her husband murdered. The film describes this event four times, from the viewpoints of four people who were part of it. Their accounts differ so much that we know that some are lying, yet all of them are persuasive -- and all apparently believe what they say. Looking back on that film much later, Kurosawa said: "Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves." It is impossible, he believed, for people to speak of themselves and their actions without embellishing the facts (often in extremely subtle ways) so that they feel they are better human beings than in fact they are. As usual, Kurosawa made sense. There may be people of whom what he said is absolutely untrue, but I'm not sure I've met one.

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