We're told honesty is the best policy, the truth shall set you free, and George Washington could not tell a lie about cutting down the cherry tree, when, in fact, the story was made up by Mason Locke Weems doing his best Jayson Blair imitation in his biography of Washington. That's right, this apocryphal story about truthfulness is a lie. Is it any wonder we don't know who or what to believe?
Whether we like to admit it or not, we all lie. Not necessarily big, blatant lies like, "I never had sex with that woman," "We know they have weapons of mass destruction," or "We'll never get rid of Dan Rather," but small everyday ones. We say we're sorry we missed a phone call when we actually checked the caller ID and said aloud that there was no way in hell we wanted to talk to them. We tell our kids they can't have any ice cream because we ran out of it, yet some magically appears in our bowl 20 minutes after they go to bed. Covered in some of the chocolate syrup we're also out of. But most of all, we lie about lying.
In a recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll, 52 percent of the respondents said lying was never justified. On the other hand, almost two-thirds of them said it was OK to lie in order to avoid hurting someone's feelings. In other words, 16.66 percent of those polled lied when they said lying is never justified. In another part of the poll, four in 10 people said they'd never had to lie or cheat, yet on the very next question one in 10 of those people said they might, in fact, have told a lie during the past week. Uh, how about the past two minutes?
The problem may be in differentiating between, and how we feel about, types of lies. Mark Twain or maybe it was Benjamin Disraeli, no one's sure who's telling the truth about having come up with this one said, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics."
While that might have been true in the 1800s, we live in a more complex world today, one that demands more refined categories. There are actually five kinds of lies: lies, white lies, fibs, spin and advertising. OK, just kidding about the advertising, because it actually encompasses all the other categories.
Basically, a lie is getting caught not telling the truth. If no one knows the difference, you can keep convincing yourself you stretched the truth just a tad, but the second you're snagged, it becomes a lie.
A white lie, on the other hand, is one you can rationalize. It's not enough to convince yourself that's easy you need to convince others that it was only kinda, sorta a lie. If you can convince two out of three people then you can safely call it a white lie without lying. A fib, meanwhile, is a trivial or childish lie. The worst part about fibbing is having to explain why you bothered saying it in the first place, since childish behavior in an adult isn't usually considered a desirable character trait.
And spin? Simply put, it's political. Even when it's not about politics, it's political. You don't even need to waste time considering whether it's true or not because you'll never know. To paraphrase an old joke: How can you tell if a politician is putting spin on something? He moves his mouth.
Spin is a close cousin to truthiness, the word Stephen Colbert created that the American Dialect Society (motto: "T'ain't no thang") named the 2005 Word of the Year. Truthiness is when someone "purports to know something emotionally or instinctively, without regard to evidence." In other words, spin is on purpose, truthiness is self-delusion.
This doesn't mean we should accept people not telling the truth. If you don't tell the truth and you're caught, own up to it. Just be sure to put a good spin on your excuse and you'll be OK. That's no lie.
Mad Dog is a contributor to featurewell.com.