This essay is an attempt to study the natural tendency of language to lie, and what it does to human interaction. I believe that we “colour” the “truth” in every occasion. One of the reasons for this is the referred natural tendency of language, others are social and psychological. In a way it is very human, it is something that our vigorous imagination forces us to do. One thing must be made clear: I do not consider this sort of lying to be in its own right bad nor good; it just is. I am not judging.
I am just barely thinking, playing with thoughts and most of all trying to understand the things I see. The purpose of this essay is merely to give “braincrub”, food for thought, no answers or conclusions shall be given. The only advice I have for reading is to keep an open mind, do not try to find mistakes and/or illogical thought tracks. Try to get in the good stuff. This is not an easy task I am giving myself, try to comprehend. 1. 1 Something about the difficulties in defining a lie
This is a definition from the Merriam-Webster on-line thesaurus on the verb “lie” 1 : to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive 2 : to create a false or misleading impression transitive senses : to bring about by telling lies “lied his way out of trouble”. It would be easy to say a lie is something that is not true, but this would demand the definition of truth. A more adequate definition might be that a lie is something that is said with the knowledge of some other facts relative to issue at hand.
But this would result as everything being a lie, because there is always something that isn’t said. I am not going to go on further, this was just to give an idea how difficult it actually is to define a lie. Although not being necessarily the main point of this essay these issues have to be dealt with as grounds for further discussion, for a possibility of understanding . It often happens to me (and probably others, but I can only be sure of myself, so in this essay I am often going to use myself as an example) that I am stuck with words.
I have something in my mind but cannot find the words to express it. Elementary, yes, but if this is so, then one must agree that there is a gap between thought and language. That they are not the same thing, that at least in some cases thought comes before language and probably vice versa in others (take listening for example). And if this is so then one must also admit that a word is already, in a way, a lie. A lie not meaning it is trying to hide the “truth” but rather it is incapable of expressing the “truth”.
Truth” in hyphens because, if this is the case, then how do we define truth? when the only tool (language) we have for defining it defies its very existence. It is said (by Mr. Barrosso, my psychology teacher, for example, and agreed upon by other psychologists) that a three month old baby has the same “voice library” as all the other babies (if not disabled) in the world no matter where they are born. After three months, culture kicks in. Only the voices or sounds needed to produce the language(s) that they hear stay, other sounds are forgotten.
Only the active part is remembered. What does this have to do with lying? Not that much with lying itself, rather with the development, and definition of language. Language is above all a social tool for communication, a tool for immediate interaction, it is primarily spoken. Writing, recording things, painting mental images and so forth, are (to me at least) secondary functions of language, functions that might be referred to as more civilised, more developed. And one might ask, what is so different in the so called primary and secondary functions?
Many things, but one of the characteristics strikes me as relevant to this essay: the more civilised the function of language gets the further away it is from trying to tell the “truth”. Example: somebody saying: “I want tea” may not be the whole “truth”, but at least it is closer to the “truth” than somebody describing a fictional character in a fictional universe having an ESP experience with a fictional pancake. I know that it is not this simple, and that for instance there are very civilised people spending their lives trying to define what different words truly mean, and that is about as close to “truth” you can get with language.
But the point is, that the tendency for lying grows with civilisation, or rather with the possibilities that civilising brings with it. But I guess this is the case with all things, when the variety of possibilities multiplies or the playground broadens it increases two or three dimensionally alias to both directions, the amount of choices and problems go hand in hand. Psychologists say that one of the most important landmarks for a person’s personal development is the point where he/she learns to lie.
I can show you studies,” Lewis says, “where the kids with lower IQs were the ones who always told the truth. Healthy, intelligent, well-adjusted kids learn to lie. ” (Michael Lewis, interviewed by Claudine Chamberlain from ABCnews) It is surely one of the things that separate us from other beings. It has to do with imagination, coping with the situation, surviving. Without these aspects, without these rational reasons to lie, there would be no need for a moral judgement on lying, because there would be nothing to gain by lying.
Thought is often seen as something pure, as something out of reach from such qualities as lying or falsity (and if not, it is rarely seen as planned or intentionally built, not taking in consideration daydreaming). Thought is also seen as something private, something secret. So much that a sentence like “a penny for your thoughts” is commonly used, beyond cultural boundaries. These features are tightly connected and linked to each other. To the point where they basically are the same thing. Meaning; a secret is easily seen as something pure, something out from the range of influences.
Something which is solely the property of someone else and therefore impossible to tamper with (I know, I am generalising, but hang on I am going somewhere with this). Why is this? One of the reasons might be that thoughts are within oneself and sanity is at stake. It is a lot easier trying to find flaws from others than it is finding them from ourselves, not to say from our own minds. The habit of placing oneself outside the actual happening, seeing oneself as an outsider and comparing the actions of oneself to other people’s actions forms an easy forum for self betrayal.
We like to watch the world and ourselves through pink sunglasses. This creates a chain effect; I see someone as being, let us say, just (just as in close to right-minded, not just as in only), not seeing the whole picture, not seeing the things he/she hides. But overwhelmed by the bit that I see, I want to embody this justness, I want to give out the same picture, the same image that caught my eye. So I do everything in my power to change myself to fit this twisted image of justness. And afterwards, when I have succeeded in changing myself, someone else sees me as a role model.
Naturally this results as me being a better person and after a couple of more steps the world being a better place, or does it? When this vicious circle evolves and revolves (this is a horror image and not by a long shot reality but it has a bit of thought in it) everybody is struggling with irrelevant issues and forgetting the main point. The main point being justness. It results as a kind of blindness or should I say a near sighted vision, when the effort to be something destroys the possibility of reaching that goal. Why desperately run after something that does not even run away?
For us humans it is not enough that we see a cup and realise its purpose, we need to read meanings and qualities into the cup. Example: I see a large yellow cup. Immediately I interpret it as a cup suitable for morning tea, not only a cup suitable for putting liquids in. Not to mention what the design tells me. We make interpretations from the first second we come in contact with anything. This is something one might call imaginative interpretation, we search for connections with our previous encounters of something similar, features that remind us about something we saw or heard before.
But it is not as simple as we see something that we saw before, the connections made would be impossible to reproduce with a computer or sure logic, it is a creative process that involves a lot of guessing and assuming, this is where the mistakes and strokes of genius arise. Through this method we build our world of experience, it is a mixture of “reality”, memories and imagination. This is just to point out that maybe things are not as simple as one (meaning firstly me) might think.
As in maybe language is not the starting point of this untruthful behaviour that I am going to describe, but maybe it originates from somewhere even deeper (I will return to this thought later). A man walks down the street. It is a street that curves slightly to his right, but enough that you cannot see what lies after two blocks. He is going to a cafeteria, which is located at the end of the road. A young female walks to the opposite direction. Their paths cross. The man says: “I’m going to Joe’s caf, does this road take me there? ” The woman answers, with a soft voice: “Yes. You are going the right way.
You just have to walk straight through the upcoming park, past the three bus stops, go right along to the first of the jugend houses, walk past it and it should come along shortly to your left hand side”. The man looks, says “thank you”, turns around and walks right back to where he came from. This was just an example how a very simple act of communication might work, how ever fictional, this might happen to almost anyone. So what does this tell us? It is a demonstration how easily something like: “yes, just go along you’ll bump into it in a while” turns into: “yes, you’ve got the right direction, but you’ve got a long way to go”.
Who is to blame? Some communicational theories emphasise that if a message doesn’t go through it always is the fault of the sender. I see the point; the sender is the only one knowing the information being sent. But this also creates a dilemma, the sender has no idea how well the message is getting across. This is where feedback should come along. If the responsibility of an interactive action (not interactive as the internet, I don’t see that much interactivity in clicking images) happening without problems is placed solely on only one person, the possibilities for failing grow immensely.
Even the word interaction points out that information should go both ways, that’s why we call it dialogue. And shouldn’t understanding benefit both sides, the sender and the receiver? In this case it should, but it gets more complicated as we go along. Two girls sit in front of the other one’s house, smoking a cigarette. Their talking about their last night out together. One says to the other, after a considerable amount of silence: “One time when you went to the toilet this guy comes along, right, he looked exactly like River Phoenix, except he had Gere’s nose, which didn’t by the way fit in his face at all.
So he comes to me, says something about me reminding him of his first love, or something, then he goes on about my eyes and like how pretty they are and stuff. I know right away that all he really wants is to get in my pants. So I take my sunglasses, put them on, look straight at him and watch him blush like the mountains in Death Valley during sunset right after a nuclear experiment”. The other one lets out an uncomfortable giggle and says: “Well that’s nothing, when I” Here, when the message is getting more vague, the rules of communication get twisted.
The message probably isn’t what happened when the other one was in the toilet, but: “I have a better life than you do” or “my life is just as exiting as yours”. There is kind of a subtext being spoken, a very simple but powerful, and somewhat insecure message secretly being transferred. But the interesting question is: who is the receiver of this questionable message? At the same time as she is trying to convince the other, she is convincing herself, and barely passing time. But what results, is a circle of lying. Lying to others, lying to herself.
And moreover this sort of action feeds into a picture of how and what people should be. It breaks down like this: everybody is colouring the “truth”, trying to convince themselves and others that they are somebody. But at the same time, when others are doing the same, this gets harder and harder. This turns into a paradox, people are seeing the things they should be, or what they want to be and while trying to fit in these narrow categories they drift further and further away from the ideologies and moral codes from which the original models of behaviour and being were developed from.
For an example a person going on about how much fun he/she had last night sort of builds a standard of what has to happen to have a really good night out. When the actual reality is totally something else. The experience itself suffers inflation and the thing that matters is how well it can be represented. There is a saying “it doesn’t matter if a story is true, but how good it is. ” Which is an interesting point, isn’t the experience of telling the story just as important as the experience itself? Maybe so, but I emphasise the consequences.
Trying to re-live an incident again by telling it as a story and exaggerating it, is somewhat related to drug abuse. The effort of boosting the experience with overstatements, and trying to boost the experience with substances, have in my mind something similar. Of course also the differences are huge. Naturally time is also an aspect in the art of storytelling, time transforms the memories, but it is not an issue to be discussed in this essay. This whole phenomenon is closely linked to the ideas Roland Barthes had about looking at photographs in his book Camera Lucida.
He pointed out how we more easily accept “good” photographs to our albums. Not good in way that they would represent reality, but good in a way that they make us, or the moment, look good, the ones that show the sides from us that we like to be shown. This in my mind applies also to social behaviour. And also vice versa; this ranking of photographs evolves to a standard of “representation”, the worst cases of this can be seen on billboards around the world and on television. This whole culture of painting beautiful pictures, selling images, concepts, is getting closer and closer to something one might call romantic-surrealism.
What? Yes romantic; the way that the world is represented neglects the ugly and unpleasant features, or shows them in a pleasant, romanticised way. Surreal on the other hand because the visions of daydreams are being brought to “reality”, to flesh. A daydream all day long, all life long. This is obviously a civilised, capitalistic and a western disease, but it is also spreading like a bad virus. And why would it not? The tremendous effort of making everything look and sound pretty, makes the outcome seem pretty and tempting. This is where the whole concept starts to approach the definitions of a religion.
A religion where the heaven is a place on earth, but still impossible to reach in a life time. There is always something that has to be bought, an image to be embodied to reach the state of this perfect being. But there is also something beautiful about the effort of making life on earth feel like heaven. Why should there be something bad in this endless quest for perfection? There shouldn’t, but the results of these promises that never come true are far from what I (even though I am not a religious person) see as heaven. It might seem a bit harsh to say that we are living in a dream world.
But anyway, we are living in a dream world, through images and visions. This is a way for us humans to define ourselves as something bigger as something greater. The definition arouses from the pictures and expectations we give and try to fulfil. Given to us by our comrades, media and our desperate need to develop. And all this does not stop in the language we speak or the lies we tell, it goes on to affect our way of walking, our natural dialect, the way we dress, what we consider as good artwork, everything; the way we live and breath, what we choose as our hobby.
It is a knockout by the surroundings, the master plan of human created environment. The big brother watching. So is this the so called deeper (as I mentioned earlier), or can we go even deeper? Our first drive, instinct, is the drive to survive. This explains the lie a child tells his/her mother about the broken window next-door, but does it fit this picture of social play, competition. Why not? It might not be clearly a question of survival, but it definitely is a question of social hierarchy and a question of acceptance and these three surely are somewhat connected to each other.
If a person gets thrown away from the crowd, from his/hers herd, it absolutely turns to be a question of survival. Our second drive (at least according to Freud) is the sexual drive, the need to breed, and this without a doubt is inseparable with the question of social acceptance. But are we so afraid of dying and celibacy that we mould ourselves, our expressions to meet the needs of others, that mould themselves to meet the needs of others and so on. Surely this would be too easy of an explanation for a case this complicated, but at least it gives some grounds for this universal and unavoidable breaking of one of the ten commandments.
But why is all this happening? Is it because our common need of feeling good, and the tendency of suspending disbelief, enables us to easily accept the lies we are told, because they are the same lies we are telling. By understanding or revealing them, we would first of all reveal ourselves and by doing it, undermine our very base of feeling good and needed. It is a kind of a social play, we all understand the unwritten rules, and we all play one way or the other.
While stating these, for some presumably inadmissible, verdicts on the collectively capitalised means of using common dialect (Dialect due to the fact that this established practise is culturally bonded and thus regionally varying prevalent usage of communication that referring to it as something other would not be without lacuna) it should also be taken in count that the same principles, although diverse from the previously encountered occurrences, do also apply to written text. Does this kind of writing seem familiar? And what did I actually say? I said that: the same thing goes for written text.
I do agree that colourful and versatile usage of language is beautiful and sometimes needed for describing something exactly. But often it is used only to arouse credibility and respect, and this results as the core issue blurring, getting lost behind the pretty and convincing words. And so, to me, the whole base for the text’s existence becomes questionable. Is somebody writing about the issue or merely trying to sound like an intellectual? Or are they simply so blinded by the level of language they use in their everyday life, that they do not take in consideration their readers?
Whichever the case, it is very common that the quality, or level of language is the very thing blocking comprehension. Which to me seems quite odd, because the main purpose for the text (at least for the kind of text that usually has this problem, i. e. academic or philosophical text) is to be understood, rarely this is the case with literature, which would be more understandable, or more justifiable. I do understand that the goal is to reach a textual manifestation without a possibility of misinterpretation, in a matter of speaking to grasp the “truth”.
Interestingly enough the way eastern philosophers pursued the same goal of seizing the “truth” was (is) quite opposite. Let us take koans for example. A koan is a question, a very simple question, but also in a way absurd. It usually brings forth more questions than answers. Something like: “does a tree falling in the forest create a sound if there is nobody hearing it? ” Japanese poetry would be another example, such as Haiku’s, consisting of only three lines, with 17 syllables, they sometimes capture something unique and beautiful.
It seems as if the way to approach the whole quest of communication is inverse; not even trying to eliminate all possibilities of misapprehensions, but rather believing in the capability of the reader, or in this case rather, the interpreter. Not saying the other is better than the other but the diversity is interesting. I have given a rather questioning and somewhat negative picture about this whole thing. It is time to lighten things up a bit, as nothing is as simple as it might seem on the first glance. Returning to the small notation on subtext, to the “hidden” or not obvious messages sent through language.
It is almost as if language is doing more than it is supposed to do. Looking at the case from this direction makes the tool (again it being language) expand it’s qualities as a communicative factor. So while defining oneself through language (or by other means) the subtext gives out a message that is closer to an image than it is to a word, and an image says more than a thousand words. Thus the falsities in human interaction are not to blame on the tool, but the one using the tool, which in this light seems to be an ingenious handmaiden.