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Lying about Santa Claus January 2, 2012

Posted by larry in economics.
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We lie to ourselves all the time: about ourselves, about others, about the kind of society we live in, the kind of people we are, &c. The lies we tell ourselves about ourselves are perhaps not properly lies but more mythologies about the kind of person we either are or think we can be.  So I am going to distinguish among lies, bullshit, and myth-making. For bullshit, I will only direct you to Harry Frankfurt’s brilliant essay on the topic (http://athens.indymedia.org/local/webcast/uploads/frankfurt__harry_-_on_bullshit.pdf). Another philosophically oriented analysis of lying as opposed to bullshitting is Sissela Bok’s Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (1999).

Myth-making in its traditional sense is an honest attempt to provide an explanation or some kind of understanding where none exists.  Origin myths are the principal example. These are not lies. Rather they are attempts to make sense of something that otherwise would be difficult or impossible to understand.  Myth-making has often been used synonymously to lying. But I am not using the term in that sense. An analysis of the kind of myth-making I am referring to can be found in Emile Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912). In his analysis, such elemental myths contain a germ of truth because they are projections of the existing social structure. Hence, worship in such a system is worship of one’s own social arrangements. In his view, simple societies have a relatively simple connection to such mythical structures while complex societies have a much more complicated one, but they have one nevertheless.  It would be deception of one kind or another to deny that such a connection existed, even in a secular scientific society.

Lies, on the other hand, are deliberate attempts to get the listener to believe something it would be to his disadvantage to believe and possibly would not believe otherwise. I wish to distinguish this kind of lie, which I will designate as a lie simplicter, from what is known as a white lie. A white lie is a lie told not to disadvantage the person being lied to but to save them future or present embarrassment. For example, should a person who is dressed inappropriately for a particular occasion asks if they look all right, you would be doing them no favors by lying to them and telling them that they look fine. So, a good and steady friend would tell them the truth – that they ought to alter their sartorial appearance. On the other hand, we often lie when such a lie would simply make the person feel ok about themselves without bringing about further disadvantage. So, a white lie, which is a lie, is not intended to render or sustain a disadvantage.

A lie simpliciter, however, is intended to do just that. But before we get onto this sort of lie, we need to distinguish it from another kind of lie, one intended to create a kind of fictional, benign universe. A good example is the lie (some call it a myth) about Santa Claus. No parent intends to disadvantage their children lying to them that Santa brings their presents. And, in fact, this lie has been around in one form or another for centuries. The longevity of a lie, which in itself may make it seem to take on the status of a myth, is no less pernicious because of this fact.

Whatever might have been the historical function of the lie about Santa Claus, what function does it currently serve? I can think of none. What it does do is to provide an early instance of a trusted adult telling a child a lie, knowing it is a lie, and leading to the inevitable outcome that the child will come to understand that his/her parents have been lying to him/her about Santa all the time. This can lead to the child losing a good deal of trust in the adults closest to them and whom they, at least up to this point, have trusted implicitly. Can this be considered a beneficial outcome?

One could argue that the removal of this veil of ignorance is a good thing because it is the beginning of the child’s social learning process, that not everyone can be trusted and that such development is essential and that it is beneficial because it takes place in a context that is otherwise benign. Nothing of any real consequence hinges on whether one believes in Santa Claus or not. This I believe is bullshit.   Should a young child, however, be placed in such in invidious position before they possess the cognitive armory to deal with such deliberate deception?   In my rendition of the motto of the early days of The X Files: Deny everything; trust no one, the context is clearly one where adult conceptualization is essential for its understanding and ability to deal with such a context and its possibly inevitable outcomes.  It is absurd to expect a young child to understand the context of lying and to be able to distinguish a “harmless” lie from a less than harmless one.

Societies are filled with mythologies and lies and it is often difficult to distinguish between them. We do not have to go far back in history to see that lying is endemic in public figures, for example.  Is it too much of a stretch to relate lying about Santa Claus to the process of inculcating a feeling that lying is ok if it is done for the best of all possible purposes, i.e., those you have in mind, no matter how outrageous the lie? Goebbels’ advocacy comes to mind here though he is an extreme example. However, I would argue that his is not as far-fetched an instance as many would like to believe. How about the economic lies told by many over the past 40 or so years? Milton Friedman had a perverse attitude to data, caring more about the theory than any evidence there might be for it, and in debates often made up figures on the fly.  If you find this statement incredible, have a look at Craig F. Freedman’s Chicago Fundamentalism: Ideology and Methodology In Economics (2008). Such lies have resulted in countless misery for untold millions. The fact, if it is in fact a fact, that such lies were told for the best possible reasons, and that some mahy not even know they were lying, is no excuse.

Can someone unconsciously lie? Of course they can. People compartmentalize their thoughts all the time. It is part and parcel of everyone’s social and cultural programming.  We are culturally programming to believe certain things and socially programmed to act in accordance with such beliefs. These two distinct types of programming are collected together in the literature under the umbrella term socialization. When we think of programming, we think of computer programming, which is intentional and goal directed and indeed self-conscious. Most social and cultural programming, however, is not of this sort. A good deal of research in clinical and social psychology shows such programming taking place without the programmers knowing that they are consciously engaged in such a process.  In fact, it could not be otherwise. Most social interaction, in order to flow smoothly, depends on the success of such programming.

The question is: does the smooth flow of most everyday social interaction depend essentially on a framework that not only allows but encourages lying and fails to supply the cognitive and emotional machinery that would easily facilitate people distinguishing harmless from harmful lies?  The only justification I can think of for facilitating and supporting this kind of deception as part of our socialization, if it is a justification at all, is that it assists in stabilizing the status quo.  That seems to be to be its one and only function. And in a well-educated society, if indeed we live in such a society, is such a function needed?  And if not needed, it can hardly be beneficial.

Altering a society where lying is so pervasive might begin by ceasing to lie about Santa Claus. Could this be a small first step?

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