I don’t know whether our first president, George Washington, really said “I cannot tell a lie.” I do know that if someone tells you they never told a lie, they’re lying.
Telling the truth feels good, but it can get you into trouble. When I was in my 20’s, my wife and I were invited to another couple’s apartment for dinner. They were both from Alabama, and when they came to New England to attend law school, they brought their southern accents and good manners with them. Elaine went to a lot of trouble making an excellent dinner.
Then came dessert, some kind of cooked banana. I ate a couple of bites and put down my fork.
“Do you like it?” Elaine asked.
“It’s interesting,” I said.
“But do you like it?” she asked again.
I don’t remember my exact words, but I made a mistake and said something like, “ It’s not my favorite.” One look told me I had hurt her feelings, and that look has stayed with me for nearly 60 years. I wish I had come up with a better, and kinder, answer. Even a “lie” would have been preferable.
A long time ago, I decided not to use the word “lie,” or accuse someone of lying, in any legal document with my name on it. I would say, instead, that the lawyer on the other side of the case was “mistaken” or “misunderstood” what had happened or, perhaps, was “confused” or had “overlooked” a critical piece of evidence.” I figured the judge would get the point.
Then I started to see younger lawyers sprinkle the word “lie” in their briefs, and even use the L word in the courtroom. It always makes me bristle, and I have held my ground. To this day, I won’t do it.
My reason is that a “lie” is not just a factual mistake; it is saying something false knowing it is false. If a person says, “Climate change is not man-made,” that may be incorrect, but it is not a lie. The same can be said for racist or bigoted remarks, hateful though they may be, because, unfortunately, the narrow-minded speaker probably believes what he or she is saying.
For a long time, mainstream journalists shied away from using the word “lie,” but the public landscape has changed dramatically. You can’t pick up the newspaper or turn on the news these days without seeing or hearing that so-and-so is “lying.” You see it not just on editorial pages, but on front pages as well. Unlike my decision not to use the word in my professional writings, the media has had little choice but to do so.
Lying has infected our public life. According to the Washington Post, Donald Trump told over 30,000 lies during his four years as president. He is hardly the first president to say things that are not so, but as we have recently seen, using untruths as a political strategy has created massive uncertainty, confusion, and, ultimately, mayhem. According to the former president’s lawyer, there is no truth. Claiming it is raining on a cloudless day is no longer false; it is an “alternative fact.”
In her book “Surviving Autocracy,” Masha Gessen writes that some lies are “surmountable,” such as when a guest tells the host (as I should have done), “I like the fish overcooked.” Then there are the far more serious “power” lies, the grandaddy of all being when a recounted, certified vote tally comes out one way and the person with fewer votes says, “I won.”
As for me, Elaine, I know it’s been a long time, but I’m very sorry I told the truth and hurt your feelings, and I apologize.