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Our Experiments with Untruths

By: Ram Govardhan

Much before Darwin’s unpaid voyages around the southern hemisphere, from the very dawn of ethical contemplation, lying has been a topic for serious reflection despite the fact that Homo sapiens had taken to lying as instinctively as ducks to water. In the ages when the virtues of rectitude and benevolence had operative influence over the masses, most lies lied low, within the realm of gossip, indulging in private affairs of others. Whereas these days, more than the feudal, egalitarian or mass media entities of yore, Donald John Trump, and his bête noires CNN and Washington Post, have unabashedly mainstreamed untruths and ensured that lies are feverishly in business at the highest echelons, all the time.

Even at the lowest rungs of our polite societies, truth no longer separates men from minnows and, amidst master masqueraders, hunch is inadequate to the task. At full throttle, given our rash get-rich-quick values, as we persist with fasts and say prayers, contemporary ethos prod us to distort the underlying realities of truth to orient our views to accomplish our purposes, come what may. Thus, our unapologetic acceptance of rewards of untruths heralds the reality that it’s the humans to whom lying owes its provenance.

Just as Englishmen never expect Irishmen to be succinct, men no longer expect men to be truthful, in whole or in part. So much so that, akin to Adam, men are pathologically drawn to earth’s forbidden fruit: untruth. Of course, every generation reckons that the old-world decorum despised lies, but, throughout the fabric of human narrative, our appetite for untruths has been insatiable. Fabrication is so intimately intertwined with our psyche that it’s now quite reasonable to concede that ‘to lie is human’.

In fact, most of us love to inhabit the world of lies, our Utopia in which everybody is free to lie. Not just commoners, the legend is crammed with foxy statesmen whose diabolical schemes owe their germination to such imaginary worlds. The crafty men indoctrinate the regent and the footmen to realise their fantasies. The cold-blooded untruths that such shammers and gold-bricks reel off epitomize human preference for diabolical taste. Underneath the horrors, ravages of war wreaked upon innocent millions are the tiniest of sparks of lies.

Most of us are thoroughly adept at lying; the ease and the unencumbered access to untruths make us lie to friends, guests, workmates and even loved ones. Metaphorical inexactitudes are the lifelines of both the upright and the unprincipled. Since breaking sweat is almost taboo, being such a deeply ingrained human trait, burglars, pastmasters and perfectly honourable men make use of untruths them with aplomb.

Liars hate confronting truth head on; veering off it, they churn out umpteen supplementary untruths to buttress their main ones. In doing so, going into overdrive, they would have you believe that Pol Pot was a good Samaritan. And that Hugh Hefner of Playboy had taken vows of chastity. That the Mojave desert is in Africa. And that the wall of separation between church and the state is sacrosanct. That Paris is a huge mall masquerading as a capital city. And that most north paws believe eugenics is ethical. That the RAW is full of fat old lazy fellows baffled by the inessential specs of smartphones. That Cleopatra was a whore of the Nile disguised as a queen. And that CNBC can’t be more accurate in calling sixty plus entrepreneurs Young Turks. That the Capricorns do die but don’t lie. That the Trojan horse was the only Grecian trump card that could have caused the fall of Troy. That the Bikini Killer Charles Sobraj was a pious man who learned Ten Commandments off and was always spotless on Sundays. That there’s a Pizza Hut franchise at Camp David. That it was John who had caused the break up of Beatles. And that Notre-Dame is a distasteful pile of medieval Gothic junk undeserving of restoration. That the skinheads are courteous people, Ku Klux Klanners love blacks and that the Mediterranean is nothing but a miserable puddle. And that the futility of having qualms about the integrity of the institution even if narcotics are called pharmaceuticals in Harvard lingo.

Lying isn’t uncommon, it’s ubiquitous and an indispensable accessory in our daily battles, at home and at work. These days, since every verifiable lie is passed off as an inaccuracy, truth is no longer the gold standard to judge integrity. And those who place high premium on accuracy talk through their hats, which is, again, a form of lie. While swearing by the unerring, unbiased justice of almighty, the brilliant, the mediocre and the bizarre devoutly of us are hardly discriminate in pressing lies into the disservice of mankind.

That we possess such an endowment to double-cross one another shouldn’t startle us. If the emergence of speech had facilitated slavery, the guillotine and other tyrannies, literacy modernised the art of concoction to inflict stuns of astonishment on the opponents, on occasions, sans bloodshed. That we must have mastered camouflage and lurking skills from predatory animals is grossly undermining our own extraordinary hoodwinking ingenuity.

We are remarkably quick-witted in lying. Yes, don’t we constantly weigh as to what to reveal and what to conceal? Research informs us that we lie thrice in ten minutes with a casual acquaintance and with the dear ones, at least twice a day: even if someone is a preacher by calling. Although the degree to which each one of us manage to stretch the untruths vastly differs, without exception, all of us do lie, day in and day out.

The genesis of lying gets going just before we attain toddlerhood. Kids kick off lying tendency from the age of seven months, babbling and crying for attention. And they start articulating lies from age three and, by six, they tailor lies to avoid rebuke or tasks, and from age seven onwards, they are bold and loud in lying to protect their mates. Like walking and talking, lying is a biological milestone; while it’s appalling, the exhibition of such cognitive growth thrills the parents. Past adulthood, in the grand game of untruths, man is never a dabbler, never an amateur or an unpaid player; he metamorphoses into a consummate professional, upping his game consistent with the prize-money.

Unbiased is nature in bestowing the privilege on genders: both genders profit from equal amount of volume and frequency of untruths; while men do to please their egos, women do to entertain others. Only the laziest of us refrain from lying altogether because of the magnitude of fertile imagination required to stay the course. As a matter of fact, there’s hardly a setting that keeps us from lying. As part of our everyday white lies, for example, I might say how great it’s to meet you, while I hate to do so. I might say, ‘You look great,’ despite the fact that the woman’s facial skin is awful, worsened by the gaudy makeup. Professionally too, don’t we dauntlessly, heartlessly make a living out of lying? Don’t we overtax ourselves to overstate our efficiencies while pitching?  Is there a profitable deal without laying numerous traps of untruths? In fact, our trademark and repute would go to dogs if integrity remained our guiding principle. Thus, hasn’t lying become second nature to us already? Of course, look how often and how instinctively we lie without giving a second thought.

Immersed as we are in the oceans of untruths, we tolerate the brutal consequences of lies without a murmur, because we too inflict such savagery on others. Reciprocity is the hallmark of liars. The real problem with truth is that it never serves our purposes, never furthers our careers and never keeps us out of trouble. As for enterprise, lies are the lubricants that keep the mercantile wheels going, making no stir or commotion. Lure of lucre is so alluring that an entrepreneur from an Ivy League school, addressing wide-eyed students, had proclaimed, “Lie, lie and lie until you succeed.”

Some of us are compulsive liars, lying all the time, often needlessly. Research tells us that these guys posses twenty percent more neural fibres in their prefrontal cortices. Yes, they have better connectivity within their brains, cooking up more lies more rapidly than others. Such people hallucinate wearing the garb of sanity, believing that lying keeps them sharp to gaslight others into buying their line. But the ones being lied to benevolently endure despite making out the liar’s lies. In fact, most of us dare to peddle lies because we assume that there’s hardly anyone shrewd enough to confront us. The outcomes of lies with which we bluff ourselves to conceal our frailties are no less traumatic and leave no scope to fix ourselves.

Don’t we know what the cliched phrase ‘all is fair in love and war’ really implies? Or, what the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu really entails when, in his ‘Art of War’, he says ‘All warfare is based on deception’? Cunning, subterfuge and shenanigans are the tricks such pundits have in their repertoire. In fact, Machiavelli, in his treatise on statecraft The Prince, asks monarchs to become ‘great liars and deceivers’ to keep their subjects and vassals quiet. And the Englishman Thomas Hobbes says, in Leviathan, “In war, force and fraud are the two cardinal virtues.” Too clever by half, having the gall to call fraud a virtue, all that these conniving warlocks seek is amnesty beforehand.

The unreliability of polygraph keeps courts from admitting attestations. Human ingenuity is so nimble that it always beats the most advanced apparatuses hands down. Throughout human account, a man’s lies were unearthed only by another man’s brutal and deadly baiting techniques.

Lies are never random, flippant or unceremonious; underneath each of our lies there lurk elaborate schemes to serve our unmet yearnings. In fact, lying doesn’t necessarily spell moral depravity or unsophistication. As a matter of fact, it’s not all that immoral or harmful to be surrounded by liars. As part of our etiquette, most of us make use of sweet lies big time; just imagine as to how terrible it would be if every one of us is to tell exactly how we feel each and every time we met, spoke to or texted someone? It’s not rocket science to grasp that such white lies perilously lead us to ones of darker hues.

Contrary to Immanuel Kant’s austere take, undeniable is the utilitarian function of the lie of necessity: holy matrimony wholly owes it’s survival to unrecognisably diluted truths. Having lied time and again, can’t we recall how meticulously we called every shot at our disposal to put someone in harm’s way and, a while later, how hard we strived to give good grounds for to placate our inner selves?

Since a sudden spiritual awakening is not granted, putting all those justifications aside, isn’t it time to relook at our endless experiments with untruths? If lying doesn’t imply cosmic implications and if heavens couldn’t keep men from crimes until now, shall we keep lying forever? Having experimented so lucratively with untruths over the millennia, of course, it’s now impossible for us, more so the millennials, to acknowledge that there is no lie without harmful consequences. Since technology is easing drudgery, as hindsight bestows reason upon us, a little more virtuous conduct is in order, at least for the sake of future of our offspring. In an unidentifiable act of justice, in proportion to the cost of every one of our lies, each one boomerangs to bite us. While simple lies extract affordable costs, toxic ones exact fatal consequences. If we recollect our bygones, even our good old hanky-panky hasn’t gone unpunished, while our stars were still on the rise.

Lying not only negatively impacts the liar but also the one being lied to; it keeps others from accessing reality and it’s impossible to fully comprehend the spiralling, catastrophic consequences of each lie. Lies of any import or gravity desecrate culture, destroy optimism, idealism and affect the broader philosophy of a just society. In their silent, introspective moments, liars invariably sense a loss of sincerity, credibility and integrity. While untruths ultimately destroy bonds of friendships, truths cultivate deeper relationships that sustain true spirit of human nature. 

If a miracle is suspension of natural order, so are lies. Although the irreducible complexity of fake news dashes the last of our hopes, like the days when cattle was currency, given the realities of our age, is seeking nothing but the whole truth an endeavour in vain? No, no way.

In a crescendo, intensified over centuries, our world has been battered by tsunami of untruths. If our civilisations are not yet in a tailspin, it’s only because of multiple, merciful strokes of providence? The centrality of truth in human affairs is unquestionable; it’s the only credible shield that renders a society invulnerable. Since there are no scientifically vetted solutions to social evils, instead of fighting puritan moralities, at an individual level, as an experiment with truth, in the beginning, even one lie-free day could be cathartic, marking an epoch in life. And thereupon, diminishing the number of follies would be morally rewarding, soothing our ruffled pride, and earning us the sleep of the just. 


Ram Govardhan’s short stories have appeared in Asian Cha, Open Road Review, The Literary Yard, The Bangalore Review, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Indian Ruminations, The Spark, Muse India, The Bombay Review and other Asian and African literary journals. His novel, Rough with the Smooth, was longlisted for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize, The Economist-Crossword 2011 Award and published by Leadstart Publishing, Mumbai. He lives in Chennai. Email:

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