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The Metafizzical Essays of
Nicholas Hancock

Published by The British Hancock Society
by arrangement with the author.


Copyright    2008 Nicholas Hancock.  Permission  is granted  to  distribute  in  any  medium, commercial or non-commercial, provided author attribution and copyright notices remain intact.

THE ANATOMY OF DECEPTION

THE ANATOMY OF DECEPTION



Spoken language is an attempt to represent objects, actions or emotional states by means of a complex system of labial plosives, dental fricatives, etc. (And if you find these words forbidding, it's probably because, like myself, you are not a phonetician.)

Written language, on the other hand, is yet farther removed from the phenomenal world, being composed of visual symbols that stand for the original aural ones. That is to say it is an arrangement of conventional squiggles corresponding to an arrangement of conventional grunts corresponding in its turn to the transverbal fact we're signalling. If we can say that both forms of expression have a purpose, this must be to evoke in our interlocutors images reflecting our own as closely as possible.

Yet from the beginning humans found these signs could also represent what was not there - a discovery of world-shaking importance. Having developed ways of communicating how things were, we set about using the same means to communicate how they were not. And this was almost certainly the more revolutionary of the two.

But the lying was still firmly premised on the truth: it was spoken or written with the honest desire that it be accepted as genuine.

Motives for lying are more diverse - and interesting - than those for telling the truth. Four of the mortal sins, for example, are rich stimuli: pride encourages us to inflate our egos with more self-importance than they deserve; avarice induces us to increase our profit margins by deceiving our customers about the quality of our products; lust has us confessing to undying love, while envy and anger cause us to dwell on exaggerated or imagined weaknesses in those we are envious of or hate. Among the many causes of deception, shame can make us deny actions we're ashamed of while in the name of compassion we tell lies to spare the feelings of others.

Most of us hear our first lie from our mother's lips: 'Not only should you tell the truth - but people just don't like liars.' And where was the mendacity in that? - Simply that she implied there were people to like who were not liars. What we learn to call a truthful person is one who lies judiciously: most of what he or she says coincides with an internal appreciation of the facts while the few lies told are sagely camouflaged. However, some men and women are so obsessively truthful they are themselves under the impression everything they say is rigidly true; yet they are so unbending that some of their truths become almost arthritic. On such people Whitman's verse may shed some light:

.         Do I contradict myself?
..........Very well then I contradict myself,
..........(I am large, I contain mutitudes.)

We are taught two things about lying: one, that in practice deception is bad because it weakens the foundation of trust between people and, two, that in theory God - believed in literally or vestigially - is upset every time we depart from the truth. To an extent the practical consideration is a genuine one; but the theological angle, which gives lying a spurious diabolical quality, depends on belief in a deity wired up to every liar among us - some seven billion, more or less.

And to what extent is the practical consideration weakened? Why, in telling a lie there is a double intention - to obscure the truth while at the same time concealing the fact that we're doing so. And if we're successful? If no one ever finds out? Then our reputation for honesty remains intact and the basis of trust unimpaired. In order to secure this rare reputation we must equivocate prudently. Tell a few mildly hurtful home truths to people whose usefulness is marginal, and you are free to indulge in any form of adulation, providing that it is subtle enough. Above all don't be impetuous except in love; appear to have considered what you are saying from every angle: people will think they're in the presence of that rarity, the individual of even-handed judgement - unaware of just how truly rare this is.

One truth - among all your lies - which you should repeat at decent intervals is that you sometimes do prevaricate; you can be sure that if you play your cards right they will not believe you.