Sweet Little Lies

How constant dishonesty runs us down, and why we deserve more


Have you noticed, over the years, the creeping ubiquity of unapologetic, regular and blatant lies, misrepresentation and a decided lack of remorse even in those caught red-handed in the act of falsification?

Those old enough to remember the 1970s might recall a time when expecting truth was normal, and we relied on advertisements to help us select products by providing honest information. We were outraged, and our government was shamed when we discovered Nixon was lying. If a store sold us a stereo electric piano or a wild-caught fresh salmon fillet, we actually expected the keyboard to output stereo and the fish to be fresh from the ocean.

Today, we don’t get honesty and, perhaps more disturbingly, we don’t even expect it.

In the new millennium, we not only find ourselves lied to constantly about issues we once thought we could take at face value, but today’s liars are no longer ashamed of lying—it’s standard business practice. The increased detective work needed to make an informed choice further fuels the problem. Exhausted and overwhelmed with endless fact-checking, we let even more untruths slip by. Jaded by fatigue, we can’t bring ourselves to care.

How did we get here? Some argue that people are basically self-interested and don’t give a damn about others, but this is a cop-out. Cynicism is too easy, and compounds the problem by tacitly accepting as natural the very premise upon which the deceptive justify deception: that people are “all assholes anyway.” It’s like the freeway game. There are two kinds of assholes on the freeway: the asshole in front of me who won’t let me by and the asshole behind me who’s trying to get around me.

Studying group behavior, we can see the problem has its roots in management style. Groups behave in the tone set by their leaders. Each year brings more stories of corrupt politicians and greedy CEOs, and these people stand in for leaders simply because they take the stage. Their model of leadership is consistent with the “winner take all” model we adopt as a culture. And this model is the seed whose fuel unsustainably feeds endless production and mandatory consumption.

But cultures before us did not always share this model, and some managed to treat themselves and others with dignity and to value concepts like sharing, collaboration and respect for fellow beings. In particular, many indigenous cultures practiced the sharing model. And while some anthropologists might argue that they “had to” share in order to eat, this assumes a superiority of our own cultural model that is both insular and arrogant (in keeping with the management style).

Regardless of retrospective “reasons” for sharing behavior, we can’t deny its benefits to both individual and group, especially as we see the fallout from our own cultural “winner take all” model: greed is considered normal; dishonesty is the rule; denial, no longer just a phase of grief, is a daily coping tool; obesity is epidemic; stress (which can cause obesity) is ongoing; addiction is on the rise; our sense of belonging is diminished, compartmentalized; depression is epidemic, as are so-called diseases of affluence; frustration and helplessness are normalized; we’ve lost our relationship with nature and, therefore, our commitment to preserve it; utopian fantasy seems a better option than answer-seeking; and we just can’t bring ourselves to care about one more thing.

“Winner take all” is clearly an abusive model, and today’s victims become tomorrow’s abusers.

How can we take the high view and find answers that will work for both people and planet? Will new leaders emerge who’ll model and guide us into the kind of small, community-based cultures that can sustain and nurture our inner integrity?

Surely one critical step will be to take back our innocence: the right to expect honesty, dignity, respect and the protection of those rights against a runaway train of bullshit from a worn-out management model that never really worked for anyone—not even the leaders who may think they are the winners.

Leha Carpenter is a writer, web designer and graphic artist living in Santa Rosa.