Monday, December 5, 2011

Lying: To Put Up A Wall, or Not to Put Up A Wall?

“We have to create. It is the only thing louder than destruction.” - Andrea Gibson

The following is an essay I wrote for English two weeks ago, being posted as a response to Kenny's post about honesty.

     Most of us believe that honesty is a good thing, but most of us lie anyway--every day, all the time. This is because our primary value is not honesty, but openness, and every time we lie, we put up a wall. Judith Viorst says in her essay "The Truth About Lying" that "the truth is always better." However, while it is true that there are some walls that should be torn down--or better yet, to have never been put up in the first place--there are still some walls that we prefer to exist, and some whose presence we simply don't care about.

     WRAL News recently published an article detailing the story of Jasmine McClain, a 10 year old who committed suicide after suffering from extensive bullying at school. Her parents hadn't any idea-- the police only found out after viewing her Facebook page and talking with some of her friends. This is an example of what Stephanie Ericsson, in her essay "The Ways We Lie,"calls a lie of omission. If Jasmine or any of her friends had spoken up, the bullying might have been stopped, and she would have at the very least received support. This tragedy could have been averted. In this case, the truth definitely was better-- without question. 
      Even in less extreme examples, habitual honesty with one's parents minimizes conflict, promotes trust, and strengthens the family. Open relationships with close friends consistently lead to increased happiness and better mental health. When between romantic partners, it's the difference between "You're a great singer!" and "So you're not the greatest at singing, but who cares? I love you anyway." It's the difference between being loved as a person you know yourself not to be, and knowing you are loved for who you are-- warts and all. When it comes to personal relationships, the truth really is always better. After all, it's kind of difficult to talk to someone when there's a wall between you.

     However, close personal relationships are not always the highest priority--and why should they be? Sometimes the fate of the world depends on it. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows* by J.K. Rowling, Harry discovers that his mentor, Professor Dumbledore, has not been entirely honest with him. Due to a fluke in a piece of dark magic, Harry must die if he is to save the world from Lord Voldemort. Harry struggles with Dumbledore's betrayal of trust throughout the book, but ultimately comes to realize that the old professor's decision had been the right one. Even at seventeen, Harry was still tempted to shirk his responsibilities and go chasing after the deathly hallows--powerful weapons used to conquer death--rather than continue tracking down the remnants of Voldemort's soul. Both Harry and Dumbledore would have preferred a closer relationship, but that wall between them was necessary for the greater good.
     If pieces of a sorcerer's soul trapped inside bits of old jewelry seems a little out there, consider the debate over openness online. All concerned parents warn their children not to give out their personal information or post pictures of themselves on sites with questionable privacy settings. Some aren't allowed to have online profiles at all. This prevents children from ponding with their real life peers, and from making new friends through the internet, but often times those opportunities are sacrificed-- and a wall is put up-- in favor of safety. While Jasmine Mcclain should not have built a wall between herself and her parents, if she had protected herself through more lies of omission, she might not have been bullied to the point of such desperation.
     Furthermore, there is the lie that most of us use the most often: the white lie. Many of us have acquaintances or relatives with whom we don't exactly agree on certain issues. We pretend to agree or simply keep our mouths shut to keep the peace; we'd rather get along than develop a close relationship. This is yet another example in which our priorities make putting up a wall actually preferable-- in which the truth is not better.

      Finally, there are the times when it simply doesn't matter if there is a wall present or not. There are some people who we just don't care about being open with. We say "I'm fine" when someone we've never met before and never will again asks us how we're doing, even if we've had a completely miserable day and just want to go home and watch TV with a package of Oreos sitting beside us. We never think twice about these lies--and again, why should we? It doesn't hurt anyone. It doesn't matter. Even when the person in question is someone we see every day--maybe a classmate or a coworker--unless he or she belongs to the circle of people we care about being close to, we lie without an ounce of guilt.
     [Personal example omitted]
     Maybe it is wrong to respect one person more than another, but that is irrelevant, since everyone does. Whatever the reason, there are some people and some instances in which we don't care about the truth. If the wall is small and built on land we're just passing over, truth vs. lies does not ultimately matter. Someone's personal convictions might lead them to choose the truth in such a case, but outside of that, a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.

     When it comes to cultivating close personal relationships, Judith Viorst is right in that the truth is always better. However, there are many instances in which close personal relationships are not our highest priority, and some in which they are not a priority at all. This is not wrong; it is only a choice of values. Lying, then, is not an issue of good vs. bad, but rather a matter of where we want to erect our walls, and how high we decide to build them. Some walls--like the tall, electrified fences surrounding a concentration camp--are bad. Others--like those encircling a city to keep the barbarian marauders from raping and pillaging everything inside--are good. And the rest--the walls that sit all alone in what used to be a farmer's field but is now overgrown and forgotten--don't matter at all.

*My English teacher specifically mentioned that I did a good job with the Harry Potter example because even though she's not an HP person because she "doesn't like science fiction," she still understood the point. **facepalm** She's a fantastic teacher, but that kind of drove me crazy.
It also makes me happy that Google spell check does not register "Dumbledore" as a misspelled word.


  1. I have to admit that I don't really consider "lies of omission" immoral. We don't have an obligation to tell people everything, in fact my philosophy mentor from undergrad did some of her early work in the ethics of privacy. Also, whether or not everyone does a thing does not make its morality irrelevant ;)

    On an unrelated note. I feel like Maureen Johnson wrote something detailing the most disturbing parts of the Twilight series, do you happen to know a) if that is true? and b) if it is, where it might be found?

  2. It's not irrelevant in general, but it is within the context of the essay- and it's meant to be an argumentative paper.

    I also vaguely remember reading something like that, but 30 seconds of Googling is not coming up with anything.

  3. I guess I expanded on the moral relevance thing in one of my recent posts. I think what people think is moral is morally relevant, but what people actually do doesn't seem so much, because we all do things we think are immoral fairly often, it seems like.

    I too could not quickly find it on Google, so I thought I probably linked to it from here or from Nerdfighters, and here seemed the more convenient place to ask about.


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