I believed Anthony Weiner even as everyone else saw through his whopper of a lie.
Now we can all agree that his actions were smarmy. The emerging consensus is he should resign or he’ll be redistricted out even as we must also know that on the scale of slimy behavior by politicians, Weiner’s offenses are no greater — or even far less offensive — than those of Arnold, John, Dominique, Silvio, Eliot, John, David or Bill, to name only a few.
Why is that?
If you answer, “it’s the photos,” I’m with you. If you answer, “because he lied,” I say no way! You’re deceiving yourself. We all like to believe that the lies we tell are innocent “white lies;” it’s the lies of others that are so terrible.
I spent a recent afternoon listening to an RSA lecture by Ian Leslie, author of Born Liars: Why We Can’t Live Without Deceit. I urge you to listen, too. Drawing on research from neuroscientists, psychologists, anthropologists and others, Leslie argues that we are all liars.
He recounts the research of one psychologist finding that all of us tell one or two lies a day. Another researcher finds that two strangers will tell three lies within ten minutes of meeting each other.
Leslie believes that lying is no bug in the human software; it’s a feature, a defining characteristic of our species found in all human societies. We can’t live without it; we just don’t like to admit it. He explains that lying and truth-telling must exist in equilibrium.
Attempts to eradicate lies usually result in more lying. Research conducted by Victoria Talwar of McGill University finds that the strict punishment for lying in a Catholic school serves mainly to make the kids “highly proficient little liars.”
Leslie’s discussion of politicians is especially on point. “We don’t want to hear the truth about politics, because we deceive ourselves about what’s possible.” Politicians, he says, “lie less than most people because they are under such scrutiny and their lives are so public.”
His discussion of the etymology of the word “politician,” first used in 16th and 17th century France to describe those who mediated between Catholic and Protestant tribes trying to kill each other, illustrates the assertion that “one reason to have politicians in the first place is to allow us a margin of dishonesty in our dealings with each other.”
Politicians are practiced in telling us what we want to hear. By punishing their every deceit and gaffe (remember here Michael Kinsley’s aphorism, “a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth”) we are, like the Catholic nuns and the school children, turning our pols into expert liars.
Says Leslie, “If we really want politicians to be more honest, we have to start treating them like grown-ups.”
Study after study shows that most of us think we are a little bit smarter, more moral and more attractive than we actually are. We probably think we lie less than we do, too. Leslie concludes:
Lying is in our DNA. Our ability to get on with each other depends on it. Our sense of who we are and what’s possible depends upon it. This isn’t an argument for more lying. Lies can corrode trust and wreck relationships. But we ought to accept that a measure of lies is everywhere necessary. It’s time to be honest about deceit.
Anthony Weiner is going through the necessary charade of a leave for treatment — though God certainly knows that with what he’s going through he could use some time with a good shrink. I hope it works for him. He’s a good politician. And after this he’s bound to be a better liar.