Thursday, October 21, 2010

Of liars and outliers

While preaching that “honesty is the best policy”, my parents lied to me through their back teeth throughout my childhood. Here are a few of their lies: sleep early otherwise ghost will come, Father Christmas exists and God makes all children. It’s as if my entire childhood was one big lie. Are my parents compulsive liars?

I looked for answers in psychologist Dorothy Rowe’s new book Why We Lie and my parents have been exonerated with the following argument: “On a crowded bus, try explaining to your seven-year-old what a dildo is.” That’s like saying that in this age of cloning and parthenogenesis, women don’t need men at all. These kinds of half-baked arguments are potential landmines that dot the book’s landscape, a book that claims to make its way to the last shingle on the vast beach of lies.

One look at the index page and the book would come across as if it was conceived at a table where Malcolm Gladwell and Sigmund Freud were exchanging ideas: How Important Is The Truth to You, Why Lying Is Necessary, How We Learn to Lie, Varieties of Lies, Some Hard Truths. One answer that Rowe offers to why we lie is that “what determines our behaviour is not what happens to us but how we interpret what happens to us”. Rowe also posits: “We might lie in order to protect our sense of being a person, but the consequences of our lying can be such that it would have been better to tell the truth in the first place. But how can we be sure what we take to be the truth is so?” More than a psychologist, Rowe comes across as an impressionable teenage philosophy student who just stumbled across Descartes.

Rowe mines several contemporary themes — Bush’s war on terror, Blair’s complicity with Bush’s lie, recent recession, extermination of Jews, climate change, dynamics of writing literature, existence of God — to drive home the Gladwellian point: there is more to a lie than what meets the eye. Rowe treats a lie in a very Manichean manner: for every yin there is a yang and, ipso facto, for every truth there is a lie. She, however, fails to grapple that a lie can transcend black and white and land in the grey area too. After all, one man’s truth is another man’s lie.

Rowe says people resort to a lie either under the prevailing circumstances or believe something that masquerades as a truth and has been ingrained in their psyche. How else could one explain the unflinching support offered by civilians to Hitler or why there has never been an uprising in North Korea despite the rich-poor disparity reaching a dizzying height? Rowe gets it right when she says humans turn rigid when faced with incontrovertible proof that their long-held truth is, in fact, a lie. When a few dismissed the climate change talk, they were branded anti-human or ignored like car wrecks (A paper authored by endocrinologist Klaus-Martin Schulte has been rejected by the journal Energy & Environment as “hot air” even without giving it a look).

Some live a life based on a lie. The Nazis were convinced of Germany’s superiority and the extermination of Jews never caused them the slightest of remorse because they were convinced that this was the means to their end: Germany’s right to take over the territory to its east. Years later, they would realise their ghastly mistakes but would still stick to their stand in case they were seen as culprits.

There is a bravura chapter in the book, “How Important Is the Truth to You?”, where Rowe really displays her psychology chops. She implores everyone to be a sceptic and question everything even though it may appear true, at the face of it. Being British, Rowe turns vituperative at Tony Blair’s prime ministerial days. “Blair’s government ran on spin, which is a message that has a tiny kernel of truth inside a thick husk of lies. Often the kernel of truth is missing,” she bristles. Another chapter titled “The Delights of Shared Fantasies” is compelling. Global terrorism is a dangerous delusion. Why would Abdulmutallab carry a bomb in a place that would automatically render him useless to enjoy the services of 72 virgins? It’s this shared fantasy (of 72 virgins waiting for jihadis in heaven) that has wreaked havoc across the world.

Even after quite a few flaps, Why We Lie never metamorphoses into a bird of much grander plumage. An accomplished psychologist and best-selling author like Rowe cannot get away with sweeping statements like “married men who know that, if they are unfaithful, their wife will throw them out are likely to think carefully before they put their marriage at risk”. This is Jackson Pollock in the garb of Seurat.

My biggest grouse against my parents has been the denial of a Walkman citing “potential ear problems” as a reason. The other day when my mother asked for a music player, I couldn’t pay her back in the same coin and ended up buying it. How I wish Rowe touched upon lies that are tantalisingly close to coming a full circle!


At 4:52 AM, Blogger sowmitra said...



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