You Can’t Pray a Lie

The main problems with lies, I figure, is that you get caught more times than you get away with them. I do anyway. I mean, they start out simply enough, but pretty soon they fractalize and I get lost in the details. Sometimes I even forget where I started, and so I have to lie about that. You really have to have a good memory to be a successful liar – or maybe write stuff down a lot and keep the paper in your pocket.

I’ve never been that well organized, however, and now that I’m getting so old that my way of life is falling into the sere, and its yellow leaf has left the tree, I fear getting trapped in a web of lies. In my younger days, I could run through the labyrinth and never even see the Minotaur… Of course, that’s another lie; it’s so easy to start them. It’s almost like walking through an autumn forest, and trying to avoid the fallen leaves –my own included.

Perhaps the most intelligent plan is to learn how to lie properly. With panache. And I found a recipe: paltering. It involves taking a one pound lie, and grilling it lightly on one side –to seal in the juicy parts- then flipping it over and adding a soupçon of truth to form a light, frothy veneer. Apparently  you don’t need vegetables.

I’d never heard of paltering before, but of course my skills have always been sub-optimal; I’ve never played at a competitive level. But the concept of speaking lies to power was just too interesting to let pass, so I found an article by Melissa Hogenboom that described it in more detail:

Hogenboom wrote what my mother would have called calligraphic pornography. The assertion that ‘Misleading by “telling the truth” is so pervasive in daily life that a new term has recently been coined to describe it: paltering.’ was, on several counts, anathema. Lying was against my mother’s religion however you dressed it up, and so, unlike the other kids, I was never taught the correct way to do it. I had to make stuff up willy-nilly with no parental backing. But I experimented with white lies whenever mother would ask me how I liked the new socks she always gave me on my birthday, and only slowly progressed to lying about not being the one who burped in class, or about why I got lost and arrived at Sunday school just as they were handing out the sandwiches. It never occurred to me to mix some truth into my explanations. I was so naïve.

But the article set me on a better, if a more winding path. ‘When Todd Rogers [a behavioural scientist at Harvard Kennedy School] and his colleagues were looking at how often politicians dodge questions during debates they realised something else was going on. By stating another truthful fact, they could get out of answering a question. They could even imply something was truthful when it was not.’

‘He found that paltering was an extremely common tactic of negotiation. Over half the 184 business executives in his study admitted to using the tactic. The research also found that the person doing the paltering believed it was more ethical than lying outright. The individuals who had been deceived, however, did not distinguish between lying and paltering.’

‘It is also difficult to spot a misleading “fact” when we hear something that on the face of it, sounds true.’ For example, ‘[…]the then-presidential-nominee Donald Trump paltered during the presidential debates. He was questioned about a housing discrimination lawsuit early on in his career and stated that his company had given “no admission of guilt”. While they may not have admitted it, an investigation by the New York Times found that his company did discriminate based on race. […] And even if we do spot misleading truths, social norms can prevent us from challenging whether or not they are deceptive.’ As my mother used to tell me, don’t mess with the woman who cooks the meals.

‘Paltering is perhaps so commonplace because it is seen as a useful tool. It happens because we constantly have so many competing goals, suggests Rogers. “We want to achieve our narrow objective – [selling a house or car] – but we also want people to see us as ethical and honest.” He says these two goals are in tension and by paltering, people believe they are being more ethical than outright lying.’

The problem, of course, is that it is such a commonly used device -not only by many of us, but more noticeably by politicians- that it undermines our trust in them, as well as the framework of whatever institution they serve. And it’s especially hard to spot the paltering in real time. It’s often hard, in other words, to know you’re even being paltered.

When I was young, the method had not yet been invented, so we were free to use force to prove which lie was actually the truth. It’s why boys with glasses, or pocket pencil-protectors seldom got an opportunity to really master the finer points of a trumped up story. And, finding myself on the shorter end of the growth curve I was never able to make effective use of the windy side of deception. I was always caught out, or threatened with grievous bodily harm unless I admitted I was lying. I used to try various other terms for my prevarications, but never convincingly. In those days, though, it helped to come up with sesquipedalian synonyms.

I ended up calling my feeble attempts at bending reality after a word I learned from Shakespeare. I decided that really clever liars were actually equivocators. I mean, who could forget that scene with the Porter in Macbeth? An equivocator was the second damned soul the Porter encounters as he imagines what it would be like to be hell’s gatekeeper. I figured that he was as good a role model as any. And remember, we didn’t have lah-di-dah palterers in those days; you were on your own. But, try as I might, I never made it into the big lie leagues –was never even noticed in the pick-up games in the empty field by the school.

I suspect I would have gone through life thinking I was an also-ran had it not been for something my mother sometimes whispered to me as she tucked me in at night -something that Huckleberry Finn said: ‘You can’t pray a lie.’

At least out loud…


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