We start with our own side of the street. We may get heated, persuasive, even over the top, but there’s no lying. If we get some facts wrong, we admit it – at least eventually. We don’t punish people for trying to find the truth. We don’t speak in bad faith, counter-attack, or get provocative to muddy the waters. If we say something is bad for others to do, we don’t do it ourselves. This doesn’t mean walking on eggshells or being a saint. It’s just calling ourselves to the basic standards we’d want in any school classroom.
But then what do we do with those who won’t do the same?
See What You See
Tell the truth to yourself about what is happening. It can be shocking to realize that someone doesn’t feel the need, to be honest or fair with you – especially people who seem so charming. Watch over time and see whether they are genuinely narcissistic or sociopathic (and not just preoccupied internally or socially clueless). Do they regard you and others as only a means to their ends, not as beings who matter in their own right?
Ordinary exaggerations, sales pitches, rants, snark, and arguments are one thing, but repeated lying is another. The attacks on truth-telling and fair play are the fundamental issues. Recognizing this and naming it to yourself is freeing and healing. You may be unable to change anything out in the world, but at least inside your mind, you can stand on solid ground.
We need allies, people who also see what we see. Consider whom you could draw upon to recognize what is happening and perhaps help you with it. For example, in various situations, I have reached out to friends, family members, colleagues, mentors, lawyers, and state regulatory agencies.
And of course, others need us to be allies with them as well.
Lying and cheating are a kind of “freeloading” in which one person takes advantage of others. Throughout most of the time we’ve walked this earth, people have lived in small groups or villages in which they could band together to shame and punish freeloaders. “Shame” and “punish” are strong words. But without them, there would have been no consequences for freeloading, and our human and hominid ancestors would not have been able to evolve our magnificent capacities for cooperation, generosity, and justice.
Sometimes it is not safe to call out a freeloader (such as a bully, con artist, casual liar, or sexual predator). Then you protect yourself and others as best you can.
But if you can do it, shine a bright light on violations of truth-telling and fair play. Ideally with allies who do the same. Liars and cheaters are usually very good at distracting others with wild and dramatic counter-claims. So we need to stay focused on simple questions and not be bamboozled by side issues: “Are you trustworthy? Why should anyone ever listen to you again?”
Include the Political Level
I’m a psychologist and focus mainly on the level of individuals. Still, many of the forces that hurt us personally come from the political level. Each of us has the right to speak up about this (much as you have the right to stop reading here if you want).
In their small groups, our ancestors came together to shame and punish powerful freeloaders that no individual dared take on alone. It wasn’t perfect and didn’t always work, but the alternative was worse.
Honest and honorable people often have intense disagreements about how to run a village or a nation. But we can find common ground in these basic principles: no lying and no cheating – and may the best team win. This is what we need to come together about. The central political issue of our time is not between the left and the right. It is between those who will tell the truth and play fair – and those who will not.
Do What You Can
We can avoid the pitfalls of righteousness while asking political candidates if they are actually committed to being honest and fair – and confronting them and their followers about this bedrock issue when they are not. Lying is a firing offense in any business and dishonorable in our armed forces – and should be the same in any elected office. We can flag liars on Twitter while staying out of stupid arguments. We can support journalists, scientists, and lawyers who get to the truth of things.
And with our voices, money, and votes, we can keep a bright light focus on the foundation of any democracy: having elections that are free and fair, and inclusive. In the rankings of democracies in 2018 by the Economist, the US ranked 25th in the world, behind most other advanced nations. If people have to lie and cheat to get into and then hold onto high office, they may have legal authority but they will never have moral legitimacy.
Anyone, high or low, who lies and cheats – and anyone who supports such people – would lose all standing in a schoolyard, church or temple, marketplace, or village commons. We need exactly the same to happen in our own public square. Because we all live in this square, and what happens there have very personal consequences for each one of us.