I’d wager we’ve all had a friend or family member share one of their new creations with us (maybe a poem, or an article, or a intending-to-be-funny youtube video) and ask, excitedly, “What do you think?” — triggering a series of connected realizations on our end: a) this is not very good, b) what will be achieved by me telling them that this is not very good? c) I want to be a good friend… so our brain wisely instructs us to say, “That’s great. Well done.”
The famous white lie. We’re all committed to the truth in the abstract. It goes all the way back to elementary school classes on George Washington and the cherry tree. We’re all quite clear on the core message: truth is good, falsehood is evil. But, that said… there are times when we’re willing to bend that commitment just a little bit to keep things running smoothly. As the Jewish sages put it long ago, Mutar le-shanot mipnei ha-shalom: “It is permitted to tell an untruth (literally, “to change” the facts) for the sake of peace.” This sentiment can be found throughout history, across all religions and cultures. Everybody lies a little bit, and that’s OK.
But there’s a space where white lies begin to shade into gray. I recall when I worked in a big Silicon Valley tech company that co-workers would sometimes present their grand strategy to achieve some breakthrough or another, and everyone in the meeting would say, “Wow, great work — this is going to be a big success!” and then afterward in the hallway say quietly to each other, “That is never going to work.” Some of my international colleagues told me they felt that this behavior was dishonest. Their feeling was: if you didn’t think it was going to work, the most loyal thing to do is to step up and provide the feedback in an honest and straightforward way. Yes, it may not be feedback the presenter wants to hear, but it’s better than pretending to be in agreement but secretly disagreeing. Those of us who kept our misgivings to ourselves might have been just trying to keep the peace (and this does seem to be a fairly typical American behavior) but we might have been creating more problems over the long run.
Then there’s the question of who it’s OK to lie to. Part of in-group/out-group behavior is related to the question of truth: who is entitled to it, and who it’s okay to mislead. Speaking the truth to someone builds trust. Over time that person learns they can rely on what you say, because experience has proven that you are an honest person who doesn’t lie. But if you don’t care about building trust with someone, or even if you feel hostile toward them, then you may be more prone to lie in order to manipulate them into doing what you want them to do. This behavior obviously creates a race to the bottom, because then they may be more prone to lie to you in retaliation — and trust goes out the window.
Which explains the surge of accusations about lying in our very divided political climate leading up to the mid-term elections next week. Suddenly accusations about dishonesty fill the news headlines every day. Liberals accuse conservatives of lying, so in response, conservatives accuse liberals of the same thing. Each side then says to their compatriots, “See? You can’t trust anything they say.” (Of course, the corollary to that assertion is, “So you should only trust me and what I tell you.”) Accusing the other side of being a liar has a long tradition in politics. History is littered with statements from leaders that one or another of their opponents is a liar, going back to Seneca’s Philosophy of Deception in Ancient Rome.
Over time this dynamic has taken on a cultural tone as well. Those trying to gin-up hate or anger against a group will often accuse a whole race or religion of being liars. Christians have long been accused of perpetrating “pious frauds” to advance their belief. The anti-Semitic assertion that Jews are liars stretches back to Luther in 1543. Those with anti-Muslim bias often intentionally misinterpret the concept of Taqiya (which is a “precautionary dissimulation or denial of religious belief and practice in the face of persecution”) as permission for Muslims to lie to non-believers about everything. These techniques aim to marginalize and “other” groups so as to build loyalty to an “in-group,” and they have been depressingly effective throughout human history.
The reality is, we all lie, on some level. And the whiteness of any particular lie may very much be in the eye of the beholder. This is how attribution error works: I lie because I have to in order to achieve a noble purpose, but you lie because you’re a bad person with evil intent. Leaders may lie to their followers because (a la Seneca) they believe the lying will improve their followers’ well being, and research shows that those followers may not even mind being lied to. This ends-justify-the-means orientation can enable people to rationalize some pretty extreme behavior. But the essential truth is that calling out the lies of your opponents may just reinforce the in-group/out-group dynamic the liar was originally intending to underscore.
I’ve written before on this blog about lies and the truth. One enemy of dishonesty is time, because as Shakespeare put it in The Merchant of Venice, “…at the length truth will out.” The challenge is for us to wait for the facts to catch up to the lies, without allowing (as Hannah Arendt described it) “the credibility gap [to stretch] into an abyss.” Arendt concludes: “…let us remember that the lie did not creep into politics by some accident of human sinfulness. Moral outrage, for this reason alone, is not likely to make it disappear.”
My job takes me all around the world, which — even after all these years — is simultaneously exhausting and energizing. Climbing into a small metal tube, sitting for 8-10 hours, and emerging in an entirely different culture is an experience akin to magic. It would have seemed like science fiction to any of my ancestors who lived between 1 A.D. and 1900 A.D. Every time it happens, I feel a measure of the wonder anew.
But part of the traveling experience is vulnerability. Once I leave my home country, I am by default dependent on the hospitality of others. When I walk off the plane I am a stranger, unable to speak the local language and unfamiliar with local rules. If an officer were to ask me questions about my intentions I could only gesture helplessly. If no one helps me, I’m in big trouble.
For some, that vulnerability might provoke a sense of unease. On my first international trips, I certainly felt that way. But over the years I have learned that worry is almost always unfounded. Esentially everywhere I have traveled I have been met by warm and welcoming people who were ready to extend a helpful hand of friendship. I have discovered that value of hospitality, of welcoming the stranger, to be a nearly universal value around the globe. (I even recall looking up in an airport in India to a saying painted on the wall: “the guest is God.”)
Which brings me to my experience flying into the international terminal at SFO a few weeks ago. As I and my fellow passengers came off the plane from Japan, bleary from the overnight flight, there was a backup of people near the exit from our gate. In rounding the corner, I saw a crowded queue of people all the way up the hallway toward customs. I could see up ahead that everyone was filing to the left, into the foreign visitors line. The lane for US citizens — especially Global Entry members — was empty. So I moved into the open lane, passing Customs agents informing foreign visitors that there was a 3 hour wait, up to the row of machines ready to give me nearly instant access to the baggage claim after I scanned my fingerprints.
I stopped and took the picture above of the 3 hour backlog. A customs agent immediately came over and instructed me not to take pictures, so I put the phone down. But as I looked at my fellow travelers standing in that line, I felt a sense of shame. Shame that the hospitality I had been shown so many times before was not being returned. Shame that somehow this was being done in my name. Shame at where we have come as a country.
Many are familiar with the Golden Rule, stated in the Bible as: “treat people the same way you want them to treat you” (Matthew 7:12). But this sentiment is not unique to Christianity. Hillel the Elder said, before the birth of Christ, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary on it.” (b.Shabbat 31a).
The sentiments reverberate throughout history. The ancient Egyptian goddess Ma’at expressed the sentiment a thousand years before Hillel. Similar statements appear in Sanskrit and Tamil, or in writings from Greece, Persia, and Rome. Muhammad said, “As you would have people do to you, do to them; and what you dislike to be done to you, don’t do to them.” Hinduism says “treat others as you treat yourself.” Buddism says “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” (Wikipedia, predictably, has all the sources, and many more. But the less-oft-cited Harry Hiker has compiled a useful background with a timeline as well.)
Interestingly, as some humanist scholars have noted, this sentiment says nothing about God. Belief in God is not necessary to understand the logic of the Golden Rule. Many religions make the Golden Rule a central tenet of belief, but it’s easy to comprehend and accept the value of the Golden Rule from a purely rational, experiential basis. Humans may be selfish, but if we treat others the way we ourselves would like to be treated, we can get along with each other. Indeed, this understanding may be hard wired into our genes — and in fact, animals have shown the same inclinations.
Which brings me back to that airport queue at US customs. And not only to the queue, but the thinking behind it. There are few clearer examples of the Golden Rule than the treatment at international customs. Every day U.S. citizens travel to hundreds of destinations around the world, and every day citizens from hundreds of destinations travel from around the world to visit the United States. Seems like an ideal place to demonstrate the reciprocity that undergirds the Golden Rule. Standing there at SFO I was seeing my country fall short.
I recall once having to get a visa to travel to Brazil on short notice. A good friend was getting married outside of Florianopolis, and I decided at the last moment than I wanted to be there. The only option was to visit the Brazilian consulate in San Francisco and plead my case. I had to drive up three times before I finally got a chance to make my pitch (“I am only going to be in the country for 48 hours!” “It’s for a wedding!”) and they really put me through the wringer, with documentation and repeated re-starts on the queue (partially my fault for not understanding the rules, I admit). Finally they relented, and with the visa in hand, I asked them why the process had been so onerous — especially seeing that every Brazilian I knew was so laid back and easygoing. The consulate official explained that this was a special process only for U.S. citizens, and it was designed to mirror exactly the process that the U.S. requires of Brazilians. The rationale was that U.S. citizens can never understand the struggles of foreigners coming into the U.S. until they experienced it themselves. So now I understood. (Important note: Brazil has since implemented an easy online visa purchase process with just a few days turnaround, so don’t let this story dissuade you from visiting.)
The principle of the Golden Rule is as close to a foundation for cross-cultural human interaction as we’re likely to get. The “otherization” currently popular in the U.S., favoring members of an in-group over the members of an out-group, rarely takes humanity anywhere positive. History is littered with examples of these choices and the sad ends to which they have led. Tribalism leads to scapegoating, scapegoating leads to callousness, and callousness to cruelty. The only antidote to this trend is empathy and kindness — and, most important, love. Let’s hope we can find our way back from the precipice.