A president is called a liar by a member of Congress during a State of the Union Address. Candidates for high office blatantly tell one thing to one audience and the opposite to another. The media ignores facts and print or air what supports their editorial positions. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” went the famous line from the movie. Although it is getting harder to make the distinction, life is not a movie but it is becoming a sad state of affairs.
Consciously or not, we are teaching our children that to lie or to call someone a liar is not only acceptable, it is now a regular and ongoing part of our civic discourse. Consciously or not, especially after having watched televised political events of late, we are encouraging our children to win at all costs, even if it takes lying to do so.
When I was a child, the worse thing I could do was to lie. My parents always told me that above all, they wanted me to tell them the truth even if I thought that the truth of what I had done would get me into trouble. As parents, my husband and I told our sons the same thing. In school, on a test, even if you cheat but tell the truth about it, the consequences are often less punitive. On a job application or resume, a sure way to lose your job or fail to get a job is to lie. And to call someone a liar was and still is one of the most egregious affronts to one’s character and integrity. “Those are fighting words,” would have been the response to such an accusation when I was growing up. Yet we now watch as our leaders fling the liar label around with reckless abandon.
Instead of welcoming the news that the nation’s unemployment rate dropped in September, a once prominent captain of industry took to social media and accused the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics of “cooking the statistics” (an accusation of lying) to benefit the candidate he does not support for president.
I am not only a parent to two now grown young men, but I am also the head of a child welfare agency that cares for at-risk children of all ages. We know the hurt and harm that lies and accusations have already done to the children in our care. Yet it is getting harder and harder to shield them not only from the lies and accusations directed at them — by a taunting school mate who learns they are “different,” or a neighbor so angry about having “those kind of kids” living on his street that he puts in writing to the local paper intentional falsehoods and code words about who our kids are — but that also permeate the world around them.
The consequences of lying have been with us for a long, long time: “The lying tongue” is listed in Proverbs as an affront to God. The architect of modern India, Jawaharlal Nehru once warned, “It is only too easy to make suggestions and later try to escape the consequences of what we say.” And so did Hawaiian journalist Moon Jade, while covering a political scandal in her state, “We try to teach our children that a lie has larger consequences than that one moment of untruth. It hurts people, especially the people we love. And it hurts the liar more than anybody else. A person pegged as a liar will always be questioned, always be doubted.”
How have we forgotten such lessons, I do not know. But it behooves us to learn them all over again; if not for us, then for the sake of our children.
Joan Wallace-Benjamin is president and chief executive officer of The Home for Little Wanderers.