It’s True: Lying is a Co-operative Act

In my previous post I wrote a little about deception. In light of recent events of a personal nature (more about that later), it got me thinking about the complexities of lying. Among my 4,000 pet peeves, being lied to is probably at the top of the list. Nobody likes being lied to, even when it is done with good intentions (as an act of protection or to avoid discomfort).

Of course, it is easy (and natural) to feel anger towards the liar and to feel like a victim, especially when the lie has serious consequences. However, I recently stumbled upon some interesting information related to this topic that has really got me thinking about this whole deception schtick.

Part of living in a culture in which saying “no” is taboo means that lying, particularly white lies, becomes a part of everyday life. These lies are of little consequence and act as a social lubricant. I’m as guilty as the next person for telling the odd white lie.

As writer Amy Bloom puts it: “I cannot shake my dependency on the white lie, because I was brought up to be nice. And I’ve never figured out the nice way to say, ‘I’d rather stick a fork in my eye than come to your house for dinner.’”

What is interesting about lying (white and otherwise) is that it is a co-operative act. If, like me, you are somewhat sensitive and intuitive, often you know when someone is lying right to your face (or your computer screen). The crazy thing is that you don’t call them on it.

Lie expert Pamela Meyer outlines the dynamics of this in her fascinating TED talk: “Think about it, a lie has no power whatsoever by its mere utterance. Its power emerges when someone else agrees to believe the lie…if at some point you got lied to, it’s because you agreed to get lied to.”

In other words, we willingly participate in deception! And why? For many reasons: to avoid conflict, to save face, to maintain an illusion, to remain in denial. Maybe we are scared to transgress social mores and norms. We don’t want to come across as psychotic/paranoid/delusional/accusatory and so we play the game.

More often though, as Meyer points out: “Lying is an attempt to bridge a gap, to connect our wishes and our fantasies, about who we wish we were, how we could be, with what we’re really like.” Truth schmuth. I totally rocked that purple, shoulder-padded Lady Gaga-esque pleather dress last night. My friend told me so.

Sam Harris, who has on him a very large brain (he’s a neuroscientist), has written lucidly on the subject of lying. He argues that, “People lie so that others will form beliefs that are not true. The more consequential the beliefs—that is, the more a person’s well-being depends upon a correct understanding of the world—the more consequential the lie.”

According to Harris, there are generally two kinds of lying – things we do (acts of commission) and things we fail to do (acts of omission). We judge acts of commission more harshly, while the latter – failing to correct false impressions and assumptions – allows the liar to get away with a lot more. For example, someone may lie to you about their marital status (“no, I’m not married”), only for you to find out later that they are, whereas an act of omission means they never tell you their marriage status in the first place.

Harris takes a conservative approach to lying and veers on the side of honesty as much as possible with some exceptions (because who wants to sound like one of those annoying and brutally honest four year olds who often blurt out ‘you are fat/ugly/stupid/bad at Connect Four’ etc.).

He argues that: “by lying, we deny our friends [family, lovers] access to reality—and their resulting ignorance often harms them in ways we did not anticipate. Our friends may act on our falsehoods, or fail to solve problems that could have been solved only on the basis of good information. Rather often, to lie is to infringe upon the freedom of those we care about.”

In my own case, when a male friend (and potential romantic interest) omitted the tiny fact that he is married and had recently became the father to a new born baby because he wanted to get laid, I was livid. Then, when I calmed down, I realized the way in which I had cooperated in this façade. Over the course of several months of correspondence, I had asked questions, had some suspicions and intuitions but stopped short of probing further, even though my instincts told me I should. There was something for me to gain by being naïve, an attempt to bridge the gap…my access to reality had been denied by his omissions, yet it was partly my own fault.

To revisit Amy Bloom: “The meaningful lie, the kind that involves being untruthful or deceitful about important stuff to those you love, is like poison. Telling the truth hurts, but it doesn’t kill. Lying kills love.”

The Faux Guru

Hipster and Prankster Vikram Gandhi

Jaded, cynical and anti-religion film maker Vikram Gandhi is out to expose the commodification of spirituality in America and comes up with a brilliant yet ethically dubious social experiment: what if he were to start his own Indian religion, find some followers and capture it on film to show how gullible and foolish people can be?

With the help of an orange robe, a blingy Gandalf-worthy staff, and some feral facial hair, the transformation of New York hipster to Indian guru (known as ‘Kumaré,’ a variation of his middle name, Kumar), is complete.

Kumaré travels to Arizona with two pretty actresses who act as his assistants. He is a striking and charismatic figure who exudes charisma and serenity. He soon attracts a dozen or so followers who engage in chanting his name, devour every word he speaks (“I am not who you think I am. What you see is an illusion”), practice his made-up yoga and welcome him into their homes.

Fake Guru in Action

The plot thickens when halfway through the documentary Vikram/Kumaré starts to feel uncomfortable with what he is doing and questions his motives. He becomes fond of his devotees, feels connected to them and genuinely enjoys their company. He decides to unveil and come clean with the truth. However, he can’t go through with it. “As I sat in that circle,” he tells us later, “I realized I’d connected more deeply with people as Kumaré than I ever had as Vikram.”

I won’t spoil the ending, as it really is a film worth watching. But, there are several striking aspects of the film worth briefly considering:

  1. Seriously, who (apart from Sash Baron Cohen), would have the gall to undertake such an unethical project and deceive people like that?! Especially vulnerable people who are seeking some kind of spiritual comfort (or is that what ‘real’ gurus do anyway?)
  2. Wow, is it really that easy to start your own religion and are people really that trusting and gullible?
  3. Vikram’s own transformation as he comes to relate to his devotees and question his own (lack of) faith. It is interesting how his new persona takes over and he comes to identify more with his made-up self than his original self.
  4. What happens to his devotees during the course of their relationship with him is very interesting. As his followers, they start to make positive changes in their lives, aided by his support and encouragement. One woman loses 30 kgs, another follows her dream of becoming a yoga teacher. An attorney starts to meditate everyday and vows to get out of debt. A couple in a rocky relationship re-commit to each other.

Kumaré puts this down to a concept in Buddhism – the idea of killing the Buddha. That is, you should not become fixated on a leader or guru. You must realize that he is empty, an illusion and you are seeing what you want to see.

As ‘Kumaré’ states on his Website: “The person you see before you in the mirror each morning can be very convincing, but do not let your reflection define you. You must visualize your desired self, emanate it, and become it. Take control of your destiny, and you can accomplish anything!”

That’s right. He has his own Website complete with teachings and workshop information. I don’t know whether this is a part of the prank or if Vikram is being serious and has really become Kumaré. I guess the joke is on me.