Believable Deceptions

Jean-Léon_Gérôme_-_Duel_After_a_Masquerade_Ball

A lie, glossed as a ‘trick’, is still at its heart, a lie. An amusing lie, harmless in-and-of-itself, perpetrated to entertain, and to produce a really good night out (if you happen to like that sort of thing). What’s more, everybody that witnesses such diversions, is willing to believe that the illusions are real, precisely because they seem believable. This, in spite of the fact that they know it is surely impossible for the attractive female assistant – whom the audience has already seen sawn in half – to have suddenly become a man in a box. At least, not without some serious surgical intervention backstage.

This is not, after all, so remarkable. We believe lies to keep ourselves entertained all the time. To a certain extent, the very act of being amused requires us to engage in miscellaneous suspensions of disbelief. Without it, we could possibly never be entertained by the myriad of television shows, movies, plays, novels and video games that help us to take a break from our real lives for a few hours each day. Probably, you are a willing participant in just such a self-deception at this very moment.

But it is not just in the consumption of fiction that we let ourselves be deceived. Nor are we above perpetrating our own, harmless, deceptions; self or otherwise. How often, for instance, does it happen that we tell someone that they do not look fat in those jeans, and they quite happily believe us? And this, despite the fact that both eyes and mirror tell a very different story? Or, how often does it happen that we try to make ourselves seem more attractive, accomplished, and interesting to other people? Strangers for the most part, who are engaging in very similar activities themselves. Or, and this is a harder one to pull off, how often do we trick ourselves into believing that the very expensive item of clothing we bought is totally worth it because of its label? Moreover, how exactly do we convince ourselves that it is not exactly the same piece of fabric as the more cheaply purchased version from a low-quality ‘brand’? How do we even manage to maintain this separation of ‘quality’, when it turns out that both garments were made in the same factory, by the same children?

For my own part, I have no real answers to these questions; only guesses. I like to call these ‘guesswansers’, and like opinions, I believe everybody should have at least one. I have many of these, but, in the interests of encouraging people to be deceptively entertained, I shall mention only two. I should point out, though, that these guesswansers are by no means mutually exclusive, there is considerable overlap. I only separate them here for analytic convenience … well, also, just because I want to.

The first reason I think we are so willing to accept all manner of fabrications, relates to what can be called the ‘X-Files Factor’. In psychoanalytic terms, this is referred to more properly as ‘Moulderian Desire’: we quite simply just want to believe. We want to believe the lies, because it is comforting. It helps us to make sense of a world that is highly complex and largely out of our control. At the same time, this belief gives a sense that the world is in some ways controllable, with only the superficial appearance of complexity. For example, we would prefer to believe that ‘free’ countries have fully participatory-democratic systems, rather than entertain the prospect that they may instead be semi-democratic oligarchies. Alternatively, we might prefer to believe that certain economic systems are also synonymous with freedom – and the form of political organization this takes – rather than pay attention to the possibility that there’s at least some forms of political hierarchy – regarded as antithetical to being free – that appear to be thriving under these same economic systems. (These are, of course, ‘hypotheticals’.)

The second guesswanser, while connected to the first, has more to do with the operation of deception on both personal and interpersonal levels. Things get a bit murky here, because we must also take into account of why it is that we construct our own falsehoods for distribution amongst our immediate, and potential, peers. Moreover, we must also attempt to understand why it is that we will so readily believe our own lies. Surely, and in both instances, it is not just because we are really good at telling them? In my view, it is quite simple: lies are necessary.

They are not only necessary because they can be funny (a joke, is a kind of lie), or because many relationships would come to abrupt ends if we didn’t tell our significant others the opposite of what they can see for themselves in the mirror. No, they are necessary because they lie (bad pun intended) at the heart of human creativity, social interconnection, and personal growth. (For, how could it happen that couples grow apart, that people become friends on social networks, or that we can grow to love ourselves, if there is not also a significant amount of ‘fibbing’ going on?)

Deceiving others into believing that we really are more intelligent and attractive than we seem at first blush, is perhaps the most obvious area where falsehoods play a role in personal growth. Perhaps also, this is where the creative aspect is most apparent. It is here, when we have successfully convinced strangers that, counter to first impressions, we are at once a genius, really cool, and maximally sexy, we can come to believe this of ourselves, too. We do not so much get ‘caught’ in our own lie, but get remade in it’s image. What was once an untruth, becomes truth. A truth with a many good looking and ‘happening’ friends; one creatively pieced together, in Frankenstein fashion, from bullshit.

But the alchemy of deception becomes stranger still. It is a strangeness so strange, that I have not really had a good chance to get a handle on it, so I hope you’ll forgive me if this last observation is a little rough around the edges. It occurs to me that human beings, who have what’s called agency (sometimes people are referred to as ‘agents’, for this reason) are constantly trying to make things ‘happen’ for themselves. Favorable things for the most part, which is why it is always a little upsetting when things work out badly. For one to make things happen, one must also have the ‘will’ to do it, which is quite often deployed as an ‘act’. Sometimes these ‘acts’, are designed to get other people to believe certain unbelievables, or cause them to ‘act’ in ways amenable to the goals of the individual trying to bring certain things about. Lies, so it seems to me, are an extension of an individual’s will: a way to influence the minds of others, or not get punched in the head for calling someone fat. Yes, the more I think about it, the more obviously lies are simultaneously ‘acts of will’. Probably, there is some moral dimension to this observation, but, for the life of me, I can’t think what it might be. Well, never mind, I’ll get there eventually.

In the course of my reflections on lies, I have grown into a strong believer in the necessity of ‘believable deceptions’. The truth of their necessity is everywhere, particularly on Friday night’s in every bar, nightclub, restaurant or movie theater I care to think of. After all, if we were to eradicate them from human life, what would take their place? Further, what kind of species would we be without them? Nothing quite so interesting as we are now, I expect.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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