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Viewpoint: The good side of lying

  • 19 January 2012
  • From the section Magazine
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Pinocchio

Everybody knows lying is usually a bad thing, but is there a positive side, asks novelist Clare Allan.

I was reading a book recently with my niece and nephew. On each page, hidden somewhere in the picture, was a drawing of a small yellow duck.

My two-year-old niece took great delight in spotting the ducks and pointing them out to me. "Duck!" she'd go, "duck!"

But each time she did so her brother would jump in, saying: "No! There isn't any duck!'

"It's there," I'd say. "Look! She's right. There's a duck."

"There isn't any duck!" he'd say.

"'It's there!"

"There isn't any duck!" He was grinning all over. My four-year-old nephew had discovered the joys of lying.

I don't know how old I was when I told my first lie, but I'd imagine something similar to my nephew. It doesn't take children long to progress from the fun of attaching words to things - "duck", "milk", "car" to the even greater fun of attaching words to things that aren't there - or of making things up.

Sometimes kids, like adults, lie to try and get out of trouble. "I didn't hit her!" says my nephew, when his dad comes in to find his sister howling on the floor. But often it's just for the joy, as Gulliver puts it in Gulliver's Travels of saying "The Thing Which is Not", of creating our own reality independent of the facts.

I've always been fascinated by lying. I think it's the fact that when people lie they are free in a way that they're not when they tell "the truth" - whatever that means.

Liars are gloriously unconstrained. Reality is so often limited by tedious factors like lack of money, opportunity, luck, talent, looks whatever. When people lie they reveal the world as it ought to be, as it could be as it would be if reality didn't keep getting in the way.

Very often, in fact, they reveal far more than they do when they tell the truth. Think of Blanche Dubois with her paper lantern covering the "too honest" light bulb. It's hard to think of any "truth" more revealing than the lies she tells.

As a novelist, of course, I lie all the time. And because I'm interested in lying, I tend to find that my characters lie quite a lot as well.

My first novel, Poppy Shakespeare, tells the story of a woman who finds herself in a psychiatric hospital and has to pretend to be mad in order to claim the benefits to pay for the lawyer she needs to prove that she's not mad.

When I went to the Netherlands to promote the novel, I found myself, fittingly enough, caught up in something of a web of deceit. When I got there I discovered that they'd published the novel with someone else's biography on the back - another Clare Allan.

It was too late to do anything about it - the book was already out in the bookshops - so I thought it best just not to say anything. That night I was giving a reading and after it this woman came up to me, waving a copy of the book.

"You know we were born in the same year!" she said. And then she started on about all these other things we had in common, the jobs we'd done and that sort of thing, all on the basis of the false biography. Well, what could I do? 'That's amazing!' I said. 'What a coincidence!'

'We are in a way twins,' the woman said.

'So we are!' I said. And we talked for some time about the parallel courses our lives had taken to arrive at that basement in the Hague. I've a horrible feeling we may even have had our photo taken together - though I might be making that bit up.

Image caption People might remember that Jonathan Aitken lied but not what about

Everyone lies. So anyone who tells you they don't is obviously lying. Even animals lie. You don't need to have words.

What's a stick insect if it isn't a liar? An insect pretending to be a twig.

I used to have a dog who was a very accomplished liar. In the flat I lived in at the time there were only two places to sit: an extremely uncomfortable, rock hard sofa and a glorious soft, saggy armchair. Naturally the dog and I both wanted to sit in the armchair but it only had room for one. So I'd be sitting there all comfortable and relaxed of an evening and the dog would get up and go to the door and give me a look as though asking to be let out.

Eventually I'd get up and walk over to the door and the dog would wait head down, no sign of anything untoward, until my hand was literally on the handle and then she'd suddenly turn and sprint for the chair and by the time I'd turned round there she was, curled up, half asleep already, so I didn't have the heart to move her.

She also hurt her shoulder, quite badly, when she was young and for the rest of her life if she thought she wasn't getting quite enough attention or if we met another dog on a walk and I bent down to say hello, she'd suddenly develop this terrible limp, which would vanish the moment my focus returned to her.

You don't need language to lie but it certainly helps. For a start, words enable you to lie when you're not even there. Most commonly by saying sorry. "Sorry, the number you have dialled has not been recognised. Please try again."

Or, my personal favourite: "Sorry, all our operators are busy at present taking calls from other clients. Your call is important to us and will be answered shortly." I've spent half a day with that one on repeat.

Psychologists estimate we each tell an average of six lies every day (The Lying Ape, Brian King, 2006). I'm assuming that's directly.

Lying by machine would take us into double figures easily. And yet for such a universal pastime, lies get a remarkably bad press. In fact it often seems no matter how serious the crime is or how despicable the thing we've done, lying trumps it every time.

Murder is bad. Lying about murder - well that's unforgivable.

Does anybody actually remember what Jonathan Aitken did or didn't do? I certainly don't. But everybody knows he lied about it. The same with Nixon and Watergate, for that matter. What was that about? I don't know but he lied.

In fact maybe it's because we all lie that we love to condemn other people for doing it as though the more moral outrage we can muster, the more honest we ourselves appear. Immanuel Kant believed that lying was always wrong in any and every situation. He argued that if a murderer came to your door intent on killing a friend who you knew to be hiding in your house, you were obliged to tell the murderer where your friend was, rather than lying to protect him.

This strikes me as the sort of argument only a philosopher could come up with. Take the people who sheltered Jews in occupied Europe for example - the lies they told to protect them were not only not wrong but positively virtuous, I would have thought.

At the other extreme are the Iago lies. Malicious lies. Lies told for the purpose of harming other people.

I'm not defending those. Far from it. They're the sort of lies that give liars a bad name. But in between these two extremes, the virtuous and the malevolent - stand the vast majority of lies, the bulk of our six a day. And it's really this lying middle ground that I want to have a look at.

So what is a lie? Well, I suppose it's a deliberate attempt to deceive by saying something that isn't true. The false biography on my book was not in itself a lie - it was just a mistake. But when we chatted about our mutual passion for pigeon fancying, I was lying because I knew it wasn't true and I pretended - for whatever reason - that it was.

So telling a lie is not the same as saying something that isn't true. To lie you have to know that what you are saying is not the truth.

So what is the truth? Well there's a question. Many people, politicians especially, would have us believe that the truth is contained in facts. But it seems to me that facts can be exceedingly deceptive.

Image caption Children learn to tell fibs at an early age

In fact, it strikes me as perfectly possible that facts are used to mislead people more often than lies are. Statistics for example - everybody knows that statistics can be made to say pretty much anything you want them to depending on what you choose to measure and how you present your findings.

And the truth depends on another lie, a lie we all ignore because we have to in order to communicate but a lie nonetheless and that is that words connect precisely with the things they represent.

What's more, that the things they connect to in my head are the same as the things they connect to in your head. But this is patently untrue.

If I say the word "table" I don't suppose that any two people imagine the same thing exactly. Perhaps that doesn't matter all that much in the case of a table - unless I'm trying to sell you one - but if we're talking about concepts such as love and hate or kindness and cruelty, or truth and lies for that matter it starts to get a bit more complicated.

It's the gaps between words and the things they stand for that makes the truth such a dangerous thing. At least in the hands of those who seek to exploit it.

To return to the Poppy Shakespeare example. A woman has to pretend she's mad to claim the benefits to pay for the lawyer to prove she isn't mad.

But what does it mean to be mad anyway? Is there any such thing as madness? Or sanity for that matter? And who decides what it is? In the case of so-called madness, history has proved this to be a particularly flexible word that can be stretched to cover all sorts of political, social and moral inconveniences. And that's just one example.

It's a dangerous misconception, it seems to me, that the truth is contained in facts.

Of course it isn't necessarily contained in lies either. But lies can at least be proved wrong. Facts are true, by definition, which is precisely what makes them so dangerous. Because surely the incontrovertible "truth" is the biggest liar of all.

And if the truth can lie, isn't it also the case that a lie can tell the truth?

"Art is a lie," Picasso said - presumably in Spanish. "Art is a lie that leads us closer to the truth."

Not a literal truth, of course. That's not its job. Fiction doesn't lead us closer to the facts. Fiction invents the facts. But in doing so it can, at its best, lead us closer to the truth.

And in a world stuffed full of statistics and spin doctors and evidence-based everything, it's important not to forget. That nothing is truer than the imagination.

This is based on an edited version of Clare Allan's Four Thought broadcast on Radio 4.

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