The vice of tolerance

A lady of my acquaintance has been called a good liar. My informant says that this is not only her private opinion; that “everyone knows” it.

If “everyone knows,” I reflected, then the lady must actually be a poor liar.

Now, I will not take lying from its ethical handle, but only from the “aesthetic,” as De Quincey would say. To my mind, a “good” lie must be convincing. It should be believable, on its own terms, as any work of art. It should cohere within itself, and fit with externals believed to be true. It should fit so well, that no joins are apparent.

Practice makes perfect, as we say, and I will assume that a good liar has had plenty of. A bad liar may be new to the game. His lie may fall apart by internal contradiction, or for want of plausibility. Children, lacking experience, start this way. The clever child soon learns what will or will not fly; that a half-brick carries farther than a whole one, and so forth; that a non-brick will not fly at all.

Behind the skills obtained through practice, however, may lie natural talent. Great liars, it could be said, are born, not made. They rise to eminence, in business and public affairs, thanks to their gifts, which may not extend to competence in their trades. Notwithstanding, people believe, and rely on them — though everything they touch turn to ashes. Many, I suspect, of the captains of industry I have glimpsed, and most of the politicians, are such products of nature: genuinely talented in the arts of trickery and deceit; good cheaters, and even better thieves. Roguish charm is their defence against exposure. They must be good at something, or how did they get so big?

Are they good or bad liars? I should think success an important criterion, in scoring their achievements. On this view we might give the lying lady, above, another chance. Perhaps “everyone knows” that she is lying, yet none will challenge. Mere convenience may dictate silence. In the present environment of “political correctness” — in which lies are piled openly on lies — telling the truth becomes downright dangerous. You could be brought before a Human Rights Tribunal.

Not all salesmen are liars, incidentally. I discovered this long ago. There are those who sincerely believe in what they sell, and the mark of their sincerity is that they need not lie, knowingly or half-knowingly. Their products may be as splendid as they say. Often this is a critical factor. The more evil the product, the more lying is required — including selectivity with the truth, for there are lies of omission as well as lies of commission. “Hype,” generally, consists of lying in both modes. I have noticed it has become the unquestioned basis of our economy. Without hype, the Industrial Revolution itself would have failed.

Thus, assuming this lady were a persistent liar, I would need to know just what she had gotten away with, to make a fair judgement on her accomplishments. It is the same in many arts, I perceive: bad artists often succeed, the good ones often fail. Their audience, the “consumers,” should be held to account. You can’t get away with something, unless someone lets you.

I do not think lying a social problem, however. For the habit began with Adam. Rather it is, like all other sin, a matter between the perpetrator and God, and as such, extremely foolish. But “society” does not come into it, until we are out of Eden.

It is the widespread toleration of lying that I count among our social diseases.

By this I don’t mean that we should be more suspicious: for trust is the very thing lying undermines. Why spread its effects? Why be tempted to counter lies with lies? Rather, we should be less tolerant of both lying and suspicion, and more alert against ourselves. The best remedy against public lying, is not to lie; which includes not co-operating in the lies of others.

For while true, in some instances, that tolerance may be argued “a necessary evil,” we should not forget that it is always a vice.