Thursday, 18 July 2013

The noble lie

"The full truth is usually best...but sometimes we may need a noble lie." (Plato's Republic). A noble lie? Here's one oxymoronic term thatis more ironic than moronic. I recall Tom Cruise's movie "A few good men" when Jack Nicholson screamed out this famous line, "You can't handle the truth!" Can we handle the truth? Is truth so daunting that we tremble at its disclosure? If the truth sets us free, why are some of us avoiding freedom like a thief would avoid arrest?

I guess the ironic truth about a noble lie is that it is often more believable than the truth itself. Its believability is therefore what lends it acceptability. Maybe we can see a noble lie as a surrogate for the truth. It is a truth substitute. And because we cannot handle the full truth at one go, a noble lie helps to cushion its revelatory impact by releasing truth in less harmful morsels. In the interim, we practise a little healthy self-deception. In other words, we lie to ourselves until we are ready to confront the whole truth and nothing but the whole truth.

Examples abound in this area. This is all too common with wives who refuse to believe the truth about their philandering husbands despite the telltale signs. Or religious fanatics who resist the truth that their child's condition requires urgent medical attention and not just prayers alone. Or a besotted lover who clings on to a lie that his girlfriend who has left him for another will come back one day. Or a lady who refuses to wake up from the self deluded idea that if she only undergoes rhinoplasty surgery, her husband will pay her more attention. Or a patient who refuses to face the fact that his symptoms hint to something more serious than he would like to think. And the list goes on and on.

My point is this: self deception is prevalent, and at times, it even keeps us from depression or insanity. We readily embrace self-deception or noble lies because it is the only way we know how to make an unbearable situation bearable or a hopeless situation hopeful. Some may even credit self-deception for preserving optimism and keeping hope afloat.

One author wrote that athletes deceive themselves all the time. He calls it the "championship thinking". Their overconfidence is a way of psyching themselves up just before a make-or-break competition. One can debate whether this is truly an act of lying to oneself but it can't be denied that a determined competitor's illusion of superiority, his exaggerated sense of control, and his overinflated optimism all adds up to render a conspiracy of unrealistic self-estimation.  And it would be quite tough to argue that this self-estimation is bereft of falsehoods, that is, they are a realistic, unbiased and justified image of oneself (an a la wobegon effect). Obviously this is far from the truth.

Another close-to-home example is our face, especially the female face. One author calls it the "cosmetic deceit". In fact, it's a facefull of deception when the makeup comes off. Think about it, however trivial it may sound. An average face is a harvest of falsehoods beginning with the fake eyelashes, the false teeth and the misleading botoxed skin to fight age-related sagging. Then, there are the eyes' highlights, the rosy cheeks, the heavy foundation and the glowing red lips. Even our hairdo is masqueraded in extensions, colorings and the definitive wigs all conspiring to give the intended false impression.

Of course, I have nothing against putting on makeup, although it is personally a matter of degree. And as an aside, I am aware that beauty is no doubt in the eyes of the beholder. But without makeup, at least in modest quantity, I would expect most beholders to require a little more persuasion than is necessary. Therefore, while makeup is normal and necessary, my point is that this sprucing up of one's appearance is still a subtle form of deception, however widely accepted it has become.

My last example is in the field of medicine, in particular, psychiatry. The unveiling of the latest fifth edition of the DSM has sparked off a storm of controversy. Even renowned psychiatrists are stirring up the controversy pot. One author calls it "psychriatrizing normal behavior". Dr Allen Frances, who chaired the task force of the 4th revision of DSM , commented to the effect that we are all looking for answers. In our desperate quest for it, we will readily believe anything from people who claim to be experts in a field where there are more questions than there are answers. He observed that quite strangely delivering a diagnosis gives us solace very much like a mental placebo.

While I will not venture into the merits or demerits of DSM 5, I think here is one good example where the noble lie is psychologically therapeutic. A medical diagnosis, no matter how tentative or unjustified, tends to fill in a gap for patients suffering from largely subjective psychological illnesses with many possible causes. Gary Greenberg, the author of the Book of Woes, wrote this, "psychiatry lives in the tension between the desire for certainty about the nature of our suffering and the impossibility of understanding it (or ourselves)." And smacked in the middle of this groping gap is where many experts (especially pharmaceutical companies), in their enthusiasm to champion the merits of DSM 5 and to sell their drugs to medicate the masses, tend to promise more than they can deliver. Unfortunately, such less-than-honest promises are taken in hook, line and sinker by the majority of the desperately ill.

But then, how can anyone blame them? It is very much a part of us as pollen are part of bees and fleas are part of dogs. We are creatures of hope and imbibing hope, even false hope, like inhaling oxygen, is an essential part of our evolutionary repertoire. In fact, Harry Frankfurt, a lecturer at Yale and Princeton, made this rather trenchant observation that has a ring of truth to it, "Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about." On this count, I guess from an honest assessment, we are all guilty of some bullshitting at some point in our life.

So, I think the nobility of a lie is in its net benefit to us notwithstanding its moral cost. Some of us may unravel at the unravelling of the whole truth and therefore a noble lie or some form of self deception helps us to work our way up to the whole truth without suffering a complete emotional breakdown. From the above examples, the whole truth may be a marriage that is beyond salvage, the fatality of a misguided religious conviction, the fleeting value of youth and beauty, the placebo effect of a diagnosis, and the belief that by doing the same thing over and over again, one can expect different results. So, while it is said that revenge is best served cold, I'd think that truth in this case is best served one therapeutic teaspoon at a time.

Before I end, here are the words of George Bernard Shaw, "Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress therefore depends on unreasonable people." Maybe in the context of a noble lie, all progress depends not only on unreasonable people. They have to be a little less honest too. And I conclude with this sentence, which to the wary may contain a noble lie: "We are all honest people. But the road to honesty, like perfection, is unsparingly littered with little white lies." Cheerz.

No comments:

Post a Comment