We have just finished celebrating the birthdays of George (“I cannot tell a lie”) Washington and Honest Abe Lincoln. Perversely, this spurs me to wonder if perhaps truth-telling is overrated. The Bible, BTW, does not endorse it wholeheartedly. Some biblical religions do, some don’t. I don’t claim to know enough about Islam to deal with this issue. But our current cultural and legal valuation of truthfulness is at best self-contradictory and at worst outright hypocritical. It is now, in many places, a crime to inflate one’s resume (though not, apparently, to lie to a job applicant during an interview.) Using a pseudonym now borders on illegal. The law has not yet dealt with telling a date you’ll call when you have no intention of doing so, or giving an over-eager suitor a fake phone number (I used to use Dial-a-Prayer.) But it’s only a matter of time.
Okay, once a history major, always a history major. Here’s what the Bible (the Jewish scriptures, to be exact) says about truthfulness:
In Genesis XVIII, 12-13, after G-d tells Sarah that she (at the age of 90) will bear a child, Sarah responds pretty much the way most women would: “At my age I’m going to roll in the hay again? And my husband is no spring chicken either.” But when G-d recounts this conversation to her husband, Abraham, He diplomatically leaves out the part about Abraham’s age. (From this the rabbis deduce that, if even the Holy One will lie to preserve peace in the family, it is permissible, and may in some situations be mandatory.)
In Exodus I, 15 – 20, Pharoah orders the Hebrew midwives “When you bring the Hebrew women to birth, you shall look at the [baby’s] genitals; if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, then she can live.” But the midwives feared G-d and did not do what the King of Egypt ordered them, but kept the babies alive. And the King of Egypt sent for the midwives and said to them “Why have you done this thing and let the boys live?” And the midwives said to Pharaoh “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; they are like animals, and by the time the midwife gets there, they’ve already given birth.” And G-d, we are explicitly told, dealt well with the midwives. Clearly, the biblical Author approves of their conduct.
Similarly we have the lies told by Rahab to protect the Israelite spies hiding in her house in Joshua II, 1-4, and by Michal to protect her fleeing husband David from the wrath of her father Saul. The upshot seems to be that lying is permissible in a good cause, the cause favored by the Holy One. Whereas Leviticus XIX, 16 tells us not to “go up and down as a talebearer among your people,” regardless of whether the “tales” in question are true or false. Truth told for a bad purpose is wrong; lies told for a good purpose may be praiseworthy.
The rabbis of the post-biblical and talmudic era had a slightly different, and more varied, take on this issue. For instance, someone who is seriously tempted to commit a scandalous sin (probably something to do with lust) is advised to “go away where he is not known, let him put on black clothes, don a black cloak, and do the black deed that his heart desires, rather than profane the name of Heaven openly.” (Moed Katan 17a–(R. Ilai))
On the other hand, they also urge those aspiring to virtue to quote correctly (Meg. 16a), to engage in commerce honestly (Makkot 24a), and not to speak one thing with the mouth and another with the heart (Baba Metzia 49a). We are also told that any scholar whose inside is not like his outside is no scholar (Yoma 72b)
These inconsistencies make more sense in the light of anthropological analysis, such as that of Jane Jacobs (Systems of Survival), who tells us that “deception for the sake of the task” is generally accepted or even praised in warrior/nomadic cultures (viz, the Trojan horse) but really frowned on in mercantile cultures. So we get the Jacob cycle, which is a battle of the pastoral tricksters, and then in the Holiness Code, Lev. XIX: 35-36, we get all kinds of stuff about honesty in weights and measures which the rabbis expand into general business honesty. Post-biblical Jewish culture, of course, is entirely mercantile, so this is the tradition that gets carried on, at least partly because nobody legislates against what nobody does.
A couple of digressions: rabbinical mercantile ethics require honesty not only about what is actually being bought and sold, but about possible gains and losses from a transaction. Modern theories of negotiation, however, presume that compromise is possible only if the possible gains don’t get into the picture.
And what about that ultimate bastion of warrior culture, West Point, and its minutely onerous honor code? . The code forbids cadets to “lie or cheat or tolerate those who do.” It has been in effect officially since the 1920s, and unofficially since the founding of West Point in 1802. What would Jane Jacobs say about this? In absence of any comment from her on the subject, I venture to suggest that it is not meant to outlast graduation and commissioning. Either it is a really pervasive form of hazing, or a form of verbal discipline equivalent to the physical discipline of the “brace” posture. Among the West Point and Annapolis alumni who subscribed to the honor code were Dwight D. Eisenhower, who later engaged in elaborate and successful deception about D-Day, and a much less successful lie about U-2 spy plane flights over the USSR; Maxwell Taylor, who collaborated in years of multi-layered deceit of the American people about the military activities he was carrying on in Southeast Asia on their money and in their name; and world-class perjurer Oliver North.
Anyway, getting back to religious views of truth and lies, Christian views on the subject vary from the Jesuit (“mental reservation” is sometimes justifiable) to the Kantian (it is never ever permissible to lie, no matter how noble the purpose.) The Jesuit approach begins with whether there is an obligation to tell the truth about a particular subject to a particular person. If someone demands from you information to which they have no right, and will not take “none of your business” for an answer, you have the right to use “mental reservation”–that is, to tell part of the truth and withhold the rest, “reserving” it silently in your mind. The classic example is of the person approached by a mugger and asked, “Do you have any money?” The person has every right to respond “No,” with the unvoiced addition, “Not for you, anyway.”
But Sir Walter Scott, writing only a few years later than the Jesuits, in
The Heart of Midlothian, depicts a young Scottish working woman, Jeannie Deans, who walks from Lothian to London to plead with the Queen for her sister’s life. Along the way, she is accosted by Bad Guys (p. 284). “Stand and deliver,” one of them tells her. “I have but very little money, gentlemen….,but if you’re resolved to have it, to be sure you must have it.” The brigand responds “This won’t do…. We’ll have every farthing you have got, or we will strip you to the skin….” But his colleague points out “No, no Tom, this is one of the precious sisters, and we’ll take her word for once without putting her to the stripping proof. Hark ye, my lass, if you’ll look up to heaven and say this is the last penny you have about ye, …we’ll let you pass.” In other words, her religion (presumably hard-line Calvinist Protestantism, the ultimate mercantile religion) forbids her to lie, even to robbers, so they will believe her if she tells them she has no money. This is, by the way, a very minor plot excursion in the novel; the issue never comes up again, and Scott does not consider it especially important.
Enough of historical scholarship. What about US law over the last 40 years or so? What about, the use of “testers,” for instance, black couples and white couples, carefully matched for qualifications, who visit realtors to see whether they are “steered” to different neighborhoods or are welcomed with different degrees of hospitality? Or “paper companies” who call to check the references of job-hunters who think they may be being blacklisted by a previous employer, or to investigate discrimination by employers? Generally, these devices are used only as a last resort, where no other way exists to find out what realtors or employers are really doing. Businesses object strenuously to the “dishonesty” of such methods. Sometimes they attack it in litigation, with varying results. The issue they raise, of course, is not whether the information thus obtained is accurate, but only whether the means of obtaining it is legitimate.
The same, in fact, goes for the “hidden camera” techniques used by many undercover reporters to reveal shoddy sanitation and marketing practices. As long as employers engage in concerted defamation and blacklisting of their own “legitimate” employees who turn whistle-blower, they can hardly complain when the public uses other means to get at their illegitimate practices. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, those who make legitimate whistle-blowing impossible make hidden-camera journalism inevitable.
For instance, there’s the Food Lion supermarket case. In 1996 or thereabouts, a couple of ABC television news reporters got themselves hired by the Food Lion grocery stores in New Jersey, and used their positions as stockers to plant hidden video cameras, which revealed Food Lion’s creative display and sale of outdated meat. ABC ran news special about it. Food Lion promptly sued–not for libel (which would have allowed ABC to defend by proving that their allegations were true), but for fraud and breach of employment contract by the ABC reporters. The jury found ABC liable, and awarded Food Lion $1400 in actual damages. In the meantime, another batch of finger-pointing and hand-wringing has burst out, deploring ABC’s use of undercover reporters and hidden cameras. Food Lion, after stating that it was “shocked, shocked to find out that deception was actually being practiced by news reporters,” has carefully avoided dealing with the question of their own meat sales practices. What matters is not what Food Lion did wrong, but the way it got revealed to the public under the auspices of ABC.
Let’s backtrack a bit on this. How did ABC, or its reporters, commit fraud against Food Lion? We are told the reporters lied when they applied for employment, by misstating their background. Hah? Did they lie about their qualifications to work as stockers in a supermarket? It’s hard to imagine anyone without a serious physical disability who could work as a television reporter for ABC and would not qualify as a Food Lion stocker. What are the qualifications? High school diploma? No criminal record? Ability to lift heavy boxes? What else could there be? What else could Food Lion have asked them? “Are you now, or have you ever been, a reporter for the national news media?” Not likely. “Are you involved in any plan to expose the shoddy marketing practices of Food Lion?” Hardly. They may have been asked about employment history, and they may have faked a bunch of previous supermarket jobs. But most courts require that a plaintiff alleging fraud prove not only that the defendant deliberately misstated the truth, but that this misstatement was in some way material to the object of the contract–in this case, the qualifications of the employee to do the job of stocker. If they had not been qualified to do the job, they wouldn’t have stayed at Food Lion long enough to plant the cameras.
The reporters may additionally have been asked about other current employment (moonlighting). In this era of part-time and multi-part-time employment, very few minimum-wage employers demand a no-moonlighting vow from their workers–they just want to know that the hours of the worker’s other job do not conflict with this job. Presumably they did not–again, if they had, the reporters would not have lasted as long as they did at Food Lion. So the fact that they did not reveal their ABC employment would not be material to the Food Lion employment contract.
Then Food Lion brings up one other accusation–that the ABC reporters breached the duty of “loyalty” to their employer.
Let me repeat that. Food Lion states that the ABC reporters were not “loyal” to their employers. Loyal? As in “moral obligation”? These were minimum-wage jobs, for hourly wages, on an at-will basis. What kind of loyalty does this bottom layer of workers owe their bosses? Did Food Lion owe their employees any loyalty? How many wrongful discharge and employment discrimination cases is Food Lion currently contesting from employees who reasonably believe Food Lion was disloyal to them? The last time I heard such blatant hypocrisy was in a child custody case in which the father alleged that my client was not fit to have custody of their children because, many years earlier, she had gotten pregnant (with the older of the two children whose custody was being litigated) by somebody else’s husband–by him, in fact.
Oh, yes. And Food Lion alleges that the ABC reporters violated their privacy. Just how much privacy do Food Lion employees enjoy? Does Food Lion require drug testing from their employees? How does Food Lion forestall union organizing among its employees–maybe by getting some employees to eavesdrop on others and report them? Are there video cameras in the employee washrooms? Apparently ABC attorneys figured it was easier to just pay the $1400 and get on with their expose’ than to raise these issues. Possibly ABC’s hands are not altogether clean in the area of employee loyalty and privacy either.
Finally, there’s the Primary Colors scandal. In 1996, the novel of that name was published. It is set in the inner circles of Washington, and its characters are thinly disguised simulacra of then-current high and mighty political figures. Its author went by the name of “Anonymous.” For six months after the novel came out, “Who is Anonymous really?” was the favorite cocktail party game in DC, and in the NY publishing world. Including Newsweek. Somebody at Newsweek got the idea that “Anonymous” might be their own columnist, Joe Klein. So they asked him. Naturally, he denied it. A couple of months later, it was finally revealed that Joe Klein was “Anonymous.” I would have expected the public reaction to be either “So what?” (among those who really didn’t care) or “Hah! You owe me five bucks!” (among those who did.) Instead, there was another burst of finger-pointing and hand-wringing about “dishonesty in journalism.” I’m not altogether clear whether the dishonesty is supposed to have resided in Klein’s use of a pseudonym (anonym?) in the first place, or in his denying it when asked. But what’s the point of using a pseudonym if one is required to admit it the first time anybody thinks to ask? In any case,
Newsweek apologized to the public in general, and Klein apologized to Newsweek.
So much for George Eliot, George Sand, Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, Patience Dogood, George Orwell, James Tiptree, Malcolm X, J, P, E, and D, and all the Anonymouses who stayed anonymous. (For the uninitiated, in order of appearance, these were the pseudonyms of: Mary Anne Evans, Aurore Dupin Dudevant, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte, Benjamin Franklin, Eric Blair, Alice Sheldon, Malcolm Little, and the purported authors of the Yahwist, Priestly, Elohist, and Deuteronomist strands of the Hebrew Scriptures.) We have apparently decided that, while automotive homicide is a mere traffic offense and failure to tell one’s sexual partner about a positive HIV test is a matter of privacy, using a pseudonym is “dishonest.”
Well, after all this, I think I stand with Jane Jacobs and the G-d of the Jewish scriptures. Deception for the sake of an otherwise praiseworthy task, or even to protect against scandal, is no sin. I still think the Democratic party missed a great marketing angle in 2000, after the Clinton impeachment uproar, by not advertising themselves as the Party of Minding One’s Own Business and promising the voters that if their candidate was elected, no American would ever again be put under oath to testify about sex between consenting adults. And, BTW, Honest Abe was a great teller of tall tales and grand inventions. And the story about George and his little hatchet was itself a tall tale, presumably told in pursuit of an otherwise praiseworthy task.