When we lie, sometimes it’s to avoid punishment, or we hope to get a friend off the hook. But even if a lie turns out well for us, someone else has to pay the price. From that perspective, a lie is simply a desire for freedom from the consequences of an unwelcome fact. That definition of freedom is selfish, cowardly and un-American. Nonetheless, the practice of lying is alive and well. And we should all be willing to say so.
As a matter of course, too many of our leaders expect to be free of hard truths or from the consequences of their own actions. But this is the opposite of what makes America great.
Our country is founded on a vision of truth. The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
We, together, hold these truths. That is what made us a nation.
Even as we have failed again and again to make this vision a reality, our shared efforts to realize it have united us. They have made us a better and a stronger country.
For instance, President Donald Trump and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton have justified their refusal to improve access to remote voting during the pandemic with a false claim that it would lead to voter fraud. Voter fraud, by any means, is extremely rare. The real fraud is politicians who lie to us about voting because they know they will lose if they tell us the truth about their policies.
Gerrymandering is a different kind of falsehood about electoral power, in which state officials, such as Democratic former Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland, drew strangely shaped legislative districts in order to dilute the votes of constituents who disagree with them.
And all of us are endangered by those who reject scientific fact in favor of their own opinions, whether those opinions relate to wearing masks, getting vaccinated against common illnesses, or climate change.
Human society relies on a common understanding of truth. Not simply the importance of truth, but also what we believe to be true. Thus, attacking or disregarding the truth is an attack on civilized society.
This is why we are taught as kids that lying is bad. When we’re children, our parents punish us. If we get caught lying when we’re older, we get fired or go to jail or get divorced.
Lying allows us to avoid the consequences of our actions. But they have consequences for someone, even if it’s not us. If I break a window and pin the blame on my brother, then I won’t get punished. But no matter who takes the rap, the window is broken, and someone has to fix it.
When we lie, we deprive others of the ability to make informed decisions about their actions. Our lies tell those around us that we matter more than they do — even though our nation was founded on the aspiration that all of us are created equal.
Taking responsibility for an unpleasant situation is tough. It takes real bravery to be honest about difficult truths, including things we don’t know or our own mistakes.
We need that kind of character in our leaders. At moments of crisis, most of us want to rise to the occasion. We want our leaders to set a good example, to be frank with us about the challenges we face and to help us meet those challenges together.
But not enough of our leaders have this strength. And that’s one reason that our country has so many problems today.
Our own definitions of “freedom” are partly responsible. We have the leaders we do in part because many of us see freedom not as the ability to make our own choices, but as freedom from the consequences of those choices. So, we pick leaders who think the same way.
Taking responsibility for difficult truths is not weak or unpatriotic. It is the best way to be true to our shared heritage in the land of the free and the home of the brave. The only way we can fix our problems is to be honest about them.
Deborah Beck is an associate professor of classics at The University of Texas at Austin.