These are the words of Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston in the television drama, “Breaking Bad.” White’s character is a teacher turned meth dealer whose life becomes one big illusion after he is diagnosed with lung cancer. The show has received widespread acclaim and earned seven Emmy awards.
The strange part is that instead of being a hapless, blameworthy villain, Walter White is cast as a hero, an icon and a man for these modern times. It feels to me as though lying has become transcendent of day-to-day morality. It’s as though it has been hoisted onto a societal pedestal for all to worship. We long for the opportunity to be so important as to be able to lie and get away with it.
Truth-telling is sooo last year
The sad fact is that despite the opportunity to communicate afforded us by technology, despite our ability to have a voice via the Internet, and in lock step with the chance of our lies being discovered through social media, lying remains a widely accepted practice.
It might even be argued that lying is becoming more mainstream and the consequences of not conforming to the “lying norm” (formerly known as “telling the truth”) are becoming more serious.
Politics and the art of deception
Our political leaders seem to have honed the art of lying to the point where it is now a shruggable offence. Canadian senators (so much for sober second thought) and now our Prime Minister stand accused of lying. The entire country is watching spellbound as the RCMP criminal investigation into Mike Duffy’s expenses unfolds. But it’s not as if anyone actually believes the guilty parties will ever suffer as a result of their lying. Can you say, “election fraud?”
Political parties are so ho-hum about lying one might even suspect there is a secret oath their members take to be judicious about truth-telling. Speaking out against the party is discouraged and criticism is an offense that may find you an outcast (i.e. Raj Sherman, Alberta’s emergency room doctor who was thrown out of the PC caucus for speaking up about healthcare).
It doesn’t matter if what you are saying is true or not. Party members are expected to go along with the party line, or remain quiet. The substance of what you are saying is irrelevant. All that matters is your willingness to stay silent, keep your opinions to yourself. In some cases, remaining quiet though, is itself a form of deception.
Lance Armstrong’s place on the lying podium is probably secured–at least until the next high profile cheater is exposed. Then there is Tiger Woods and what about Marion Jones? The alarming thing about these celebrities is that they have been disgraced but does anyone believe they are down for the count? Unlikely. Our tendency is to grow fonder of celebrities when their human failings knock them down. We like to root for the underdog, even when they’ve been underhanded.
Whistleblowers are incarcerated
In an era of open data and with the mantra of accountability and transparency on the lips of our elected officials, you’d think that so-called “whistleblowers” would be elevated to hero status. Not so. Take a look at WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and the recent case of Edward Snowdon, still on the run from authorities for revealing that the US government was spying on its own citizens. These courageous individuals exist on the fringes of society, fleeing from location to location fearing for their freedom, whilst the majority yawn and go about our day-to-day lives uncaring.
Social media forgives lying
Perhaps because it is so easy to get caught in a lie in the era of social media, we have become almost more forgiving. Some might argue the norms have been so reversed that lying is almost a matter-of-fact requirement of an online presence.
There are now services that specialize in “scrubbing” your online presence, creating separate profiles on social media and keeping secrets about your personal life. Ensuring your weekend antics and bad behaviour remain “between friends” is somewhat admired. Moving anonymously from debauchery in one setting to virtuous in another has become a badge of honour.
Surviving the reality TV onslaught
More important in modern times is your ability to fit in with a social circle. It may be the inevitable outcome of our “Survivor” media narrative and fascination with reality television personalities who are often rewarded for lying. On television, the consequences of lying are not fully explored.
Consider the “Bro Code,” for example. Popular television shows may make light of it but it is a set of rules that involves linking groups of men together in a “cone of silence.” Members of the group take the sacred vow of, “bro’s before ho’s” which usually involves protecting each other’s secrets especially where women are concerned. This is a disturbing trajectory in the course of post-feminist masculinity.
So before we applaud these double lives and adopt new ways of fitting in let’s take a step back and consider the consequences.
Lying still sets you on a collision course with the truth eventually. You can take evasive actions, momentarily reverse and even stop in your tracks completely. Going forward will inevitably bring you to a point in every relationship where lies and truth intersect. Surviving the crash of fantasy and reality will depend on the good will of others. And trust, once eroded, takes a long time to reestablish.
Short term pain is still short
The truth doesn’t always roll effortlessly off the tongue. But the new norms don’t change the basic facts. Relationships fuelled by lies will end badly. Truth-telling may be hard in the short term, but that’s nothing compared to the heartache you could be setting yourself up for in the future. And lying is the ultimate insult.
It may seem more difficult to avoid lying these days. It might even feel like deception is given more than a passing nod of acceptance. Let’s hope we develop new ways of coping and resisting the temptation to lie. And we can all do our part by not reinforcing a norm that elevates lying as an acceptable way of escaping responsibility.