Oh, what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive.
~ Walter Scott
One of the most famous liars in history was a man named Karl Friedrich Hieronymus Freiherr von Münchhausen or simply ‘Baron Münchhausen.’ Born in Bodenwerder in 1720, he was a German nobleman who spent a decade of his life serving in the Russian military. After his retirement in 1750, he returned to his hometown where he acquired a reputation for his witty but exaggerated tales of his own heroism.
people would rather hear an entertaining fiction than the mundane truth
Now it could be argued that when a person lies they undermine trust in society, but the Baron’s stories were very entertaining and didn’t harm anyone. In fact, the Baron was well known to be an extraordinarily honest and honorable man when it came to his business dealings and personal life. He simply knew that the people would rather hear an entertaining fiction than the mundane truth.
The cruel irony for the Baron was that as his stories circulated, they took on a life of their own through each generation of authors. Ultimately, the vast majority of the stories published as ‘The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen’ were fabricated, but not by him.
Lying is not intrinsically wrong
George Orwell said: “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” While it’s probably fair to categorize our current times as Orwellian as his own, I think it is self-interest that is the biggest problem in the modern day. Late-stage capitalism has raised consumers and not citizens. Defeating cynicism would be the real revolution.
lying as a creative endeavor
Aristotle argued that lying was a perversion of the natural faculty of speech, the point of which is to communicate accurately the thoughts of the speaker. Like much of Aristotelian philosophy, that’s all a bit puritanical for me. I’d rather think about lying as a creative endeavor and not something that is inherently wrong.
In the words of Gregory House M.D., “everybody lies” and we do so for a variety of reasons. Whether I am creating a fictional work, helping to brand the children’s clothing store I own, editing ‘The Chip Race’ podcast, or representing a rivered straight, it’s all trying to tell a story ergo it’s all lies. As someone who lies for a living but also possesses a conscience, I often give pause to the ethics of my situation.
We lead storied lives
As a creative writer, I invent fictions that have beginnings, middles, and ends. This narrative structure is the way the human mind orders information. This is comforting for the reader as we are story-telling organisms that, at both an individual and societal level, lead storied lives.
Stories are effective learning tools because the reader becomes engaged and therefore not only remembers but often becomes capable of imagining new perspectives, enjoying what can be a transformative, empathetic, and even cathartic experience. The problem, however, is that stories are contrived. They manipulate us into behaving in a way that other people think we should. They are artifice and while their peddlers include philosophers, scientists, and civil rights lawyers, they also include self-serving politicians, genocidal megalomaniacs, and the nefarious CEOs of profit-hungry multi-nationals.
It is not the lie that is harmful, it is the objective of the lie
Look at the world of marketing and advertising where the idea of storytelling has been extended to the consumer’s relationship with a product. When Coca-Cola put its marketing geniuses to work on an ad campaign about ‘happiness,’ its real objective is to make you feel bad about who you are and what your life is like. This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if Coca-Cola wanted you to re-examine your life, search for meaning, and make changes for the greater good. But it doesn’t. The company simply wants you to buy more caffeinated sugar water even though you are probably depressed, obese, and suffering from type-2 diabetes. It is not the lie that is harmful, it is the objective of the lie.
All in the game, yo
The objective of my lies at the poker table is to win other people’s money. This is not a particularly noble sentiment I know but when people sit down at the poker table, they understand the nature of the game and they understand the risks. Poker players are snake oil salesmen but unlike cans of Coca-Cola, our schtick is labeled ‘snake oil.’ As the wise Omar Little once said: “All in the game, yo.”
The point is the poker table is not the real world, in the same way as the images evoked by words on a page are not real. Off the felt, most poker players are unscrupulously honest, just like Baron Münchhausen. But on the felt, we are at war with our opponents, and in the words of Sun Tzu:
All warfare is based on deception.”
So we tell stories; sometimes simple ones and sometimes complex multi-street ones that have beginnings, middles, and ends. Friedrich Nietzsche suggested that those who refrain from lying do so only because of the difficulty involved in constructing the lie. Mark Twain echoed this sentiment when he said: “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” The best poker players not only know how to construct the lie; they know how to maintain and sell it.
“Oh, what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive…
Unless we are master-weavers
Who can turn skeptics into believers.”