Publish at October 06 2013 Updated June 07 2022

Seven billion liars

Lying seems to be consubstantial to life in society. So there would be good reasons to lie?

Lying: here's a practice generally considered reprehensible. We like politicians who "speak the truth" (at least, who claim to speak the truth...) and on dating sites, the most sought after quality in potential candidates is honesty. In short, we collectively love the truth. But isn't stating this a lie? The program Cultures mondes on the French radio station France Culture has just recently broadcast 4 programs on the theme of lying from political, religious, philosophical, literary, activist, ethnological, and finally sociological angles.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau claimed that children were incapable of lies and that only very bad circumstances would cause them not to tell the truth. The theory seemed candid, but social scientists believe, in recent years, that the French philosopher's view holds up. Experiments would show that as early as 3 years old, children are able to understand a false representation of reality. But it is at 4 years old that they start to lie. Why do they do this? The social environment forces them to fabricate in order to defend themselves from certain dangerous situations. Would an entirely benevolent environment create children incapable of lying? No answer to this question yet, but sociologists are interested in this hypothesis.

From Napoleon to George W. Bush

Politicians are considered great liars. So liars that people claim to trust more in advertising than in the word of politicians... That says it all! Admittedly, there have been many times when they've rolled voters in flour. The two wars in Iraq are clear examples; both were started on lies. The one led by George Bush Sr. was largely based on the moving testimony of a supposed nurse in a Kuwaiti hospital who had seen Iraqis slaughtering babies. She would later be identified as the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador who had merely recited a text prepared by communications specialists. As for Bush Jr.'s war, evidence of the infamous weapons of mass destruction is still non-existent 10 years after this campaign that cost billions of dollars and killed tens of thousands of soldiers and hundreds of thousands of civilians.

Unfortunately, American presidents have not invented anything. They simply imitated a propaganda maestro: a certain Napoleon Bonaparte. French history holds in high regard the famous image of the little emperor crossing the Bridge of Arcole holding the tricolor flag at arm's length. A fantastic scene... and totally false. The reality on the ground was quite different, but Napoleon demanded that the picture of this event be painted this way. Ditto for the fresco of his coronation, where he asked the painter to have his mother appear in it, while all historians agree that she was not there.

The philosopher Harry Frankfurt, who studied the " bullshit " (the bullshit of politicians) came to this conclusion : the state lies actually obey the will to control of information, an incomplete information that hides the stick that hurts. For example, the absence of weapons of mass destruction to justify the invasion of Iraq.

You will not lie. I mean...

Judeo-Christian religions abhor lying. While the prohibition of lying is not part of the 10 biblical commandments, God does prohibit Moses and his people from worshipping false gods and from speaking his name in vain. These two commandments juxtaposed are interpreted today as a very strong invitation not to lie. Yet the Lord does not always punish deception.

For example, in the Bible, Pharaoh sends Egyptian women to surreptitiously kill the newborn babies of the Jewish people. But they hesitate, finding the act too barbaric. So they lied to the ruler of Egypt, claiming that they never had time to commit their acts, as their families were too often at the bedside of their infants. Result: these ladies are rewarded by God who spares their lives and their families. So, lying for the Almighty is acceptable. An idea that would have horrified the philosopher Immanuel Kant who considered that man lost all his morality as soon as he engaged in lying, even if for "good" reasons.


Lying : a tool for reflection and social peace

These were the first few minutes of " Bye Bye Belgium ", a docufiction about a supposed explosion of Belgium, following the declaration of independence of Flanders, broadcast in December 2006 on the RTBF channel. A powerful hoax that had Belgians glued to their seats and caused much stirring in Belgium. Although there were plenty of clues that it was all fake, 6 % of viewers believed it until the end, despite the " This is a fiction. " banner appearing 30 minutes into the show.

A joke in bad taste? Possibly, but one that addressed a real political taboo subject among Belgians and forced them to talk about it in person. Because, yes, lying can make you think. In literature, for example, Claude Bonnefoy will have left his mark by inventing from scratch a fictitious author : Marc Ronceraille. Assisted by a few friends from the milieu, the humorous approach aimed to denounce this mythology of the writer that so fascinated the intellectuals of the time. The prank worked like a charm until Bernard Pivot revealed the pot aux roses during his television show Apostrophes. The literary world, moreover, is full of deceptions sometimes created to provoke debate, other times simply to get a lot of money as in the story of Hitler's fake notebooks.

Lies can even be a militant weapon. The Yes Men are a group of men who ridicule economic liberalism in any way possible. Among their best hoaxes, Their fake WTO (World Trade Organization) website that fooled many people. In 2004, one of their members pretended to be a representative of Dow Chemicals, the company responsible for the Bhopal chemical disaster in 1984. On the twentieth anniversary of the tragedy, this fake spokesman promised to invest 12 billion dollars to treat the victims, clean up the site, etc. Immediately, the company's stock market value fell by 2 billion and Dow Chemicals was quick to claim that all this was false, causing an even bigger media storm.

Lying can also be seen as an instrument of peace  We all have in mind suicides of lies committed in order not to open hostilities (or not right away). In Iran, it allows to hide one's inner truth which would often be punishable under the laws of this totalitarian country. In Lebanon, arranging the truth prevents relations between citizens from becoming violent. For the man who says nothing is much more distrusted than the liar. There is even a Lebanese expression that says, when talking about a kid or a person : " He is beautiful as a lie! "

So, are we all big liars? It seems that we all tend to lie a little bit for different reasons that seem right to us. A way to lubricate our human relationships and keep a relative harmony. For would a world without lies be peaceful? Nothing is less certain.

Illustration: mikute, shutterstock


Culturesmonde. "The truth if I lie: six billion tooth pullers (1/4) - "They don't tell us everything", the state lie." France Culture. Last updated: September 23, 2013.

Culturesmonde. "The truth if I lie: six billion tooth pullers (2/4) - Thou shalt not lie." France Culture. Last updated: September 24, 2013.

Culturesmonde. "The truth if I lie: six billion tooth pullers (3/4) - Impostures and hoaxes, from the art of lying." France Culture. Last updated: September 25, 2013.

Culturesmonde. "The truth if I lie: six billion tooth pullers (4/4) - Little lies between friends: recipe for living together." France Culture. Last updated September 26, 2013.

France Culture. "Literary Supercheries, the animated series." France Culture. Last updated March 19, 2013.

Lachnitt, Christophe. "Trust in Advertising Rises." Superception. Last updated September 27, 2013.

Mascaro, Olivier, and Olivier Morin. "The Awakening of the Lie." Field. Last updated: September 2011.

The Yes Men. Last updated October 25, 2012.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. "Claude Bonnefoy - Wikipedia." Accessed 1er October 2013.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. "Marc Ronceraille - Wikipedia." Accessed 1er October 2013.

On state lies or cover-ups and the dictatorship of transparency, read also: 

Vaufrey, Christine. "The Historian, Secrecy, and Wikileaks." Thot Cursus. 17 September 2013.

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