Telling stories

Telling lies in the age of transparency

Posted by southwrite on July 26, 2010

Social media, Google, and Wikileaks – not to mention prying government and big business – were supposed to make us all a lot more transparent. The thinking goes there’s very little about our lives that is secret anymore – or is likely to be secret for long.

So why tell your new date that you’re a company CEO when a search engine can easily reveal that you’ve just gotten out of prison.

Decide it would fun to take your top off in a bar and a score of cell phone cameras will send images of your bare breasts across the web. Forget about keeping that Miss America crown.

These days it’s easy for a company to search public records and Facebook accounts to ferret out the truth and lies hidden in resume and job applications. In fact, the only reason the dark secrets of your past stay out of sight is when others don’t really try to find them.

With so much information so accessible to so many people why does anyone think they can get away with anything?

Now let’s be clear. We all lie at one time or another. Usually it’s to avoid conflict with someone or fudge the truth so that our behavior looks a little better. Sometimes we simply convince ourselves that events transpired a certain way when they really didn’t. Police and prosecutors are well aware that witness memories can be notoriously unreliable.

But how do you explain some of the more outrageous lies that have been part of the public consciousness in recent times. Why does a public figure tell a personal story that can be easily proven false by the public record?

A few months ago Connecticut Attorney General (and U.S. Senate candidate) Richard Blumenthal created a fictional Vietnam War record.  In speeches he said: “I remember the taunts, the insults, sometimes even physical abuse” endured by returning vets. Problem is he was one of those fortunate sons who took advantage of the draft law to secure a series of deferments so he could attend college and even do an internship with DC publishing magnet Katherine Graham. When it looked as if his luck might be running out he wrangled his way into a Marine Reserve unit that wasn’t going anywhere.

We tell small lies designed to keep us out of trouble and avoid conflict. We fudge the truth about our accomplishments to impress someone and even if we know what we’re doing in the beginning soon we accept the lie as whole truth. That seems to be what happened with Blumenthal. He repeated the story so many times and embellished it so much it probably began to believe it himself. Believing didn’t make it so.

More recently, Shirley Sherrod, an African-American woman, was fired from her job at the U.S. Department of Agriculture when a video appears in which she seemed to say she hadn’t helped a white farmer as much as she could. After being held up as an example of black racism a different story emerged.

She was the victim of a truly shabby lie propagated by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart and swallowed whole by the media and public officials. The video was carefully edited from a speech by Sharrod that told a story of redemption and changed attitudes. The white farmer spoke up for Sherrod declaring that she had fought successfully to save his land from foreclosure.

Why did Breitbart believe he could get away it? Didn’t he realize someone would bother to look a little further? Didn’t he think it might tarnish his own reputation?

Maybe he just knew that his audience wouldn’t really care one way or another.

The public is quite gullible when it comes to false stories that seem to fit with their deeply held beliefs. Think of the fictional “death panels” or a thousand other conspiracy theories such as Obama wasn’t born in the U.S.

If a story reflects a “larger truth” such as black racism directed at whites, then it doesn’t really matter whether it actually happened or not. And, perhaps that’s one of the biggest reasons that lying is still so common and so obvious.

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