Little white lies—big damage
Alternative facts hurt both our politics and our personal lives
I was nearly a homewrecker. Years ago, I dated a man who told me his wife had abandoned the marriage and moved to Texas. They were legally separated, her attorney was drafting divorce papers, and he couldn’t wait to be free, he said. He wrote me long love letters, sprinkled thoughtful texts throughout my day and took me on trips to the coast. Then, one morning, my cellphone startled me awake. I squinted drowsily, saw my guy’s number, and answered.
“Is this Joey?” a woman asked.
“Who’s this?” I glanced at the number again, thinking I’d erred. She said her name. I recognized it as belonging to one of my guy’s co-workers, but the woman on the phone had a tight, throaty voice. Not the same person.
“You know,” she said encouragingly, as if to toggle a switch in my mind. “-----’s wife.”
My sleep-scrambled brain struggled to stack the right facts and eliminate others, Jenga-style, without crashing. “Wife? You’re separated and getting a divorce, correct?”
So wrong. She accused me of trying to break up her marriage. She said her husband had complained I was pursuing him. Gobsmacked, I countered: “He pursued me! He writes me love letters!”
“You’re lying!” she blurted. “Leave my husband alone!”
I briefly considered offering to send her the letters, but didn’t. I knew I was telling the truth. But she clung to the idea of who she wanted her husband to be: the victim of unwanted female attention. That view blinded her to his betrayal of us both. No matter what proof appeared to support an alternative perspective, it was obvious she would never accept that her man had lied. So I assured her I was not interested in a relationship with a married man, and then told her never to call again.
Her husband phoned later that day to spin a different story. He claimed his wife was “desperate and trying to hold on because she knows the marriage is over.” I told him not to call me again. After all, why would I knowingly date, or even associate with, a liar?
My accidental affair—that’s what came to mind when I heard Kellyanne Conway say “alternative facts.” She used that phrase to spin White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s false claims about the large crowd size at President Donald Trump’s inauguration. “That’s a lie!” I said at Conway when she appeared on my TV screen.
But when I pointed at her, three fingers pointed back at me. An invitation, I thought, to reflect on whoppers I’ve told myself, or that I’ve believed. Here’s one: I’m intuitive and will sense when someone is lying to me.
“Research shows that on average, in ordinary conversation, people lie two to three times every 10 minutes,” writes philosophy professor Clancy Martin in his book Love and Lies. (He should know—he blew up his second marriage with an affair.)
Evolutionary psychologists draw a line in concrete between the two categories of lies: pro-social and anti-social. Pro-social lies, also know as white lies or peccadillos, are lies told to help someone or to protect their feelings. Anti-social lies are intended to obfuscate the truth in order to cover up misdeeds or to get one’s way.
Alt-facts are anti-social lies. And, as anyone who has endured domestic violence or child abuse can attest, anti-social lies feed emotional and psychological abuse. Lies of omission; dodging direct questions; insisting a lie is the truth; gaslighting (refusing to acknowledge reality); and hiding falsehoods are all abusive behaviors that victims, survivors and collaborators (bystanders who fail to intervene to stop abuse) know too well. An abuser justifies the lies he or she tells (alt-facts) but tries to pin a victim down until that person says what the abuser wants to hear. Abusers rarely admit their own lies to themselves. They don’t concede to expecting a higher level of honesty than they give, either. This is precisely the kind of behavior we’ve seen from Conway, Spicer and, yes, Trump.
Pro-social lies we tell friends, lovers, strangers, family or employers are not the same as government propaganda intending to mislead and harm the world. But from a spiritual perspective, how we inhabit our private lives directly influences the community. My favorite Zen Buddhist koan—“How you do anything is how you do everything”—reminds me to pay attention. To lie to family, friends and others is to nurture a precarious relationship with truth that affects us all.
Sacramento resident Madalynn Rucker, a former Black Panther Party activist, believes the feminist rallying cry of the 1960s is still relevant: “The personal is political.”
“For me, it’s impossible to separate personal issues from social-justice and equality issues,” Rucker says. “All relationships involve authority and power.”
Featured in the Oakland Museum’s tribute to the Panthers, “All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50” (running until February 26), Rucker, a Panther from 1968 to 1974, says the party’s effort to initiate positive change was exactly what she needed to confront reality.
“The Black Panther Party’s radical approach to the political status of black and other poor people of color aligned with the rage and hopelessness I felt in the aftermath of the civil-rights movement,” Rucker says. “Racial hatred, based on lies, ignorance and fear, is not rational and not responsive to debate and prayers. It is also impossible to ignore that underlying the lies are issues of power and control, and economic self-interest that can’t be separated from racism, sexism and other irrational forms of hatred.”
That kind of hatred can be subtler than expected. Scholars point out that the phrase “white lie” has racist roots. It suggests that lies told by Caucasian people are less harmful than lies told by people of color. In other words, like a betrayed spouse, we must stop clinging to the lies we want to believe about who we are, and do the work of eliminating our biases so we can create the relationships we really want with each other.
Two days after Conway tried to deceive the American people by describing a lie as an alternative fact, a playful poem of protest appeared on a website called Literary Hub. The writer, Allison Joseph, celebrates the ridiculousness of alt facts. In the fifth line, Joseph writes: “Infidelity shall henceforth be known as ’alternative dating.’” A lie, by any other name, still stinks.