By Traci Seltzer-Castillo
For those of you who are not Americans from Generation X, the tag line advertising and marketing jingle “Is it live or is it Memorex?” became popular in the early 1980s by the American company Memorex (founded in 1961). This marketing slogan was used to describe the very real audio quality of their cassette tapes (These are archaic audio recording devices used before CDs and after 8-track tapes. They were used in 1970s & 1980s boom boxes. An internet search of these ancient artifacts may be needed). In essence, the listener was to believe that the recorded sound was exactly the same as the original sound of someone speaking. Later, this marketing jingle became an iconic expression in American popular culture and daily casual conversation to indicate that one is not sure if something is real or fake (not real). While the topic of lies may seem inappropriate for this form, it is not. There are many political, economic and political economic examples of how lies have impacted populations, regimes and economies.
What is a lie? It is important to note each person and each culture have their own definition of what is considered a lie; what is considered a white lie; if lying is acceptable, in what circumstances it is acceptable, and how far the truth may be bent before it is considered a regular lie. In American English, the expression is to bend the truth, which means there is some basis of truth but it may be slightly or drastically distorted. It is not the same as a white lie. It is also important to note that cultural norms change over time especially within each new generation, so what was once considered unacceptable 40 years ago may be acceptable now.
Then there is a gray area: Is it a lie to not tell the entire truth, to remain silent instead of truthfully answering a question, to answer a question in a vague way for which the intended meaning could be construed in many ways (e.g. what is called political mumbo-gumboor word salad; it’s a lot of words that sound good but mean nothing), or how far the truth can acceptably be bent (especially in regards to interpreting information and statistics, truth in advertisements and truth in the news)? In some situations, remaining silent when asked for the truth is considered an admission of guilt or that there is information the person does not want to tell because of its repercussions or incriminating implications. In regards to interpretation of information and statistics, here is an anecdote that is applicable further into this missive:
A CFO is interviewing prospective candidates for an open position of chief accountant. The CFO poses the same question to the top four candidates, “What does 2 plus 2 equal?” Their responses:
Candidate 1) 2 + 2 = 4. The CFO replies, “No, you’re wrong. You don’t get the job”
Candidate 2) Most times 2 + 2 = 4 but it sometimes it might equal 3 or 5. The CFO replies, “No, you’re wrong. You don’t get the job”
Candidate 3) Why does it have to equal anything? The CFO replies, “No, you’re wrong. You don’t get the job”
Candidate 4) What would you likeit to equal? The CFO replies, “Very good! You’re hired!”
Are white lies considered a gray area? No, not really; they are a unique category in and of themselves. The difference between a regular lie and a white lie is motivation or intent. The motives for regular lies are for extrinsic gains or reasons; selfishness. A white lie is typically unselfish, and done for altruistic reasons. White lies are used so that:
- others’ feelings don’t get needlessly hurt,
- others are not caused undue stress and anxiety, and
- one may prevent themselves from having to endure a needless unpleasant situation (for example, when a wife asks her husband if she looks fat, he knows to say no because otherwise he will have a very unpleasant evening. In the same sense, the wife is expecting him to tell her a white lie because she just wants to hear him say no).
In most cultures, the one person that people tell white lies to the most and is acceptable to do so is mom. When mom asks her adult child, “Is everything ok with you?”, whether it truly is or isn’t, one must always tell mom “I’m fine” so that she doesn’t worry.
The advent of the technology age has certainly impacted the ability to effectively tell and/or maintain a lie. GPS, satellite imagining, drones, hidden cameras/microphones, blog postings, mobile phone pings, online documents, Snoops.com, fact-checkers, hackers and the public’s demand for transparency have definitely pushed the topic of lies and lying into the spotlight. Sgt. Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden have all experienced the repercussions for exposing lies. But what about those who told the lies? Are there repercussions for telling lies? In the grand scheme of current life, the answer is no, unless the person is an average citizen. In the US, everyone is supposed to be considered equal, but the truth is, there are many who are “more equal” than others, such as businesses, Trump (and his questionable win as POTUS) and Ethan Couch who, in June 2013, used the successful criminal defense of Affluenzato get only probation for driving while intoxicated (drugs & alcohol), speeding and driving without a license. He said that because he was rich, he claims that he wasn’t taught right from wrong, so his actions were not hisfault. It may be prudent for Trump to use this same defense for his behaviors and lies.
Unfortunately, through the idea of behaviorism, the lessons learned from the results of lying are not what are expected. In the US, there are whistleblower laws to protect those who tell the truth and expose corruption, yet in 2013, Edward Snowden move to Russia after exposing NSA information; Julian Assange has had to stay in the Embassy of Ecuador in London, England since June 2012 for posting US government documents on his WikiLeaks site; and Private Manning was incarcerated for seven years (2010-2017) because he gave US government documents to WikiLeaks. Of course, in many cases, some secrets must be kept, but this is on a case-by-case assessment). Again, with the idea of behaviorism, if exposing the truth gets one punished, then it may deter others from telling the truth. The whistleblower laws in the US are like handing the keys to the fox who is watching the hen house. The whistleblower’s identity is easy to determine with today’s technology, and then the whistleblower’s life will be quite unpleasant afterwards, especially if the person would like to be employed. Many companies do not want to hire a whistleblower for fear of a repeat past performance.
As stated above, those who exposed lies have received punishment but those who did the lying received a small bit of public humiliation. The liars’ punishments rarely fit the severity of the crime of lying. Volkswagen was shamed for lying about their emissions statistics from 2008 to 2015. Did this company really suffer for its questionable integrity? No. It may have received some monetary fines and a bit of humiliation from the scandal, but their bottom line is still quite acceptable. Facebook’s initial IPO in May 2012 was substantially high, which later, media tells the public that the IPO prices were unsubstantiated due to the withholding of FB’s not-so-dazzling third quarter earnings. Those who found out shortly after the IPO dumped their purchases quite quickly, thus decreasing the stocks’ value in hours or days. The 2002 ENRON and Arthur-Andersen scandal and the 2008 global economic crisis seeds have caused a lot of financial carnage from their lies in the name of making profit. Historically, lies about the severity of industrial-related disasters have also caused lasting effects and carnage on human lives; for example, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown disaster, the 1984 Union Carbide disaster (Bhopal, India), and the many drug trial tests by pharmaceutical companies in Africa and India that actually gave diseases to the people and then tried to cure them with new pharmaceuticals. The idea of corporate responsibility may only be a fantasy.
Integrity: The act of doing what is right when no one is looking or watching. The ethical dilemmas and possible accusations of lies or lying begin when what is right, just, best, legal and moral are not one in the same. There are differing opinions about the definitions of each. When one makes a decision based on only one adjective, it may be perceived as a lie or lying, but is it?
In America, after such scandals like ENRON and Arthur-Andersen, the US government made new laws to prevent such things from happening again. Is it really possible to regulate morality, ethics and integrity with government laws? The answer is no. The 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act (aka SOX, pronounced like socks) was created and enacted to stop such things from happening again. In the constant wake of financial scandals and the public outcry for the US government to regulate the immoral behaviors of businesses (including the accounting profession), on July 30, 2002, President George W. Bush signed SOX into law, which also created a new watchdog organization, the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board(PCAOB), for monitoring the financial reporting methods of publicly traded companies. Obviously, laws are not effective at regulating morals, ethics and integrity because the 2008 global economic crisis occurred six years after the advent of SOX.
Apparently in today’s world, it is acceptable to tell lies if doing so makes profit (monetary or otherwise) or if it gains someone the competitive advantage (such as exchange rate manipulation, government secrets, market first-movers market, untruths in advertisements and news, and the POTUS).
Are there effects of lies that are told by business and/or government? Due to the idea of behaviorism, many people may subscribe to, “The first time you fool me or lie to me, shame on you. But the second time you fool me or lie to me, shame on me because I shouldn’t have given you a second chance to trust you after you burned me the first time”. Unfortunately, serial liesmake people suspicious of others, especially of those who are in positions of public trust like CEOs and politicians, such as Trump and his alternative truth. A certain level of trust must be established for good relations; personal, professional, business and government. Each time lies are exposed, the impacts either 1) make people quite suspicious or paranoid thus they believe everyone lies most of the time, or 2) they accept lies as commonplace and then forget about them as if they never happened. Option #2 is a dangerous slippery slope to losing morality, ethics and integrity. Perhaps a healthy balance of trust-distrust is an optimal solution, but not necessarily a Utopian one. Perhaps the truth of the matter is that lies and lying are the norm, and condemning them are just an illusion and to satisfy the public.
What a tangled web we weave when at first we practice to deceive– Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)
Trump and his alternative truth is somewhat a different topic because of the complexities of his motivation for lying (see 1-5 below). Most every day, new Trump lies are exposed. Some Americans feel that he has mental health problems. However, he seems quite cognizant of his choices and volitions. It is possible that he is the result of behaviorism. Here’s why:
- When people get what they want by lying (especially without getting caught), their choice to lie is reinforced by getting what they wanted (the reward), which encourages them to lie again. No punishment for lying gives people confidence that their lies are believable, and they often start making “more believable” lies to receive bigger “rewards”. However, these new & improvedlies are quite unbelievable.
- When this successful cycle continues over a long period of time, it often becomes a way of life and who they are as a person.
- They may continue to lie even though they will not gain anything from it (no reward).
- In some cases, people continue to lie so that they can convince themselves (and others) that their lies are the truth. Is it live or is it Memorex?
- For many, people will lie when caught in a lie because in the past, lying prevented them from getting into trouble or lying got them out of trouble; again the idea of behaviorism.
Unfortunately, many people cannot remember what lies they have told, so it is quite easy to bring to light the lies. In essence, their own myriad of lies tells on them. What a tangled web we weave when at first we practice to deceive! Trump should take note of these words of wisdom.
Traci Seltzer-Castillo has worked as internal fiscal and compliance auditor for various government and private sector entities, criminal analyst, and academic teacher in a men’s prison. She has graduated with an MBA (in Leadership & International Business), holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology, a future Master’s of Education (in International Education; June 2018), a Bachelor’s of Arts in International Relations, and a 140-hour TEFL certificate.