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Sun Aug 28 22:52:11 SAST 2016

The Big Read: At times, a lie is an act of kindness

Jonathan Jansen | 11 February, 2016 00:57
Jonathan Jansen. File photo
Image by: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Lisa Hnatowicz

Is it okay to lie? If you're a reasonably decent South African you would of course revolt at the idea that such a question could even be posed.

Children are taught from a very young age that lying is reprehensible and any one of you will remember a parent's favourite moralising message on the subject like "tell the truth and shame the devil" or one borrowed, like "O what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive." To most of us there are no grey areas when it comes to lying, but Gerald Dworkin, writing in the New York Times, argues that we lie all the time (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/12/14/can-you-justify-these-lies/). So let's pose the question differently: when is it okay to lie? Consider some examples elaborated from the Dworkin article.

You witness a friend dying in a horrific car crash. It takes at least half an hour before he succumbs to terrible burns. Later you meet his distraught wife who grabs your arm and asks, "Did he suffer?" To save her further mental anguish - after all, he's dead - most of us would say "No" and leave it at that. Right?

Or you attend your child's pre-school concert and her shrieking voice more or less spoilt the choral piece put on by the kids. Everybody noticed. Afterwards your daughter comes running up to you, asking eagerly, "Mommy, did you enjoy my singing?" You know it was horrible but you tell your precious little one it was just wonderful.

And then the one we all do at some point. You plan to surprise your ageing parents on their wedding anniversary with a stunning weekend party in their honour. All the children and grandchildren are coming as well as all their friends. "Where are we going?" they ask as you collect them at their home. "Oh, nowhere really. It's such a lovely evening and we just thought you'd enjoy a drive along Chapman's Peak."

No, do not give these lies a colour; they are not white lies; they are just lies and we do them all the time and make up some justification in our heads for why lying under these kind of conditions is perfectly acceptable.

I've been thinking of how quickly we as South Africans enter that self-righteous zone where we loudly and harshly condemn those who make things up. It's as if we believe that the louder we shout and the more outrageous the punishment we promise, then we would have succeeded in presenting ourselves as clean, without guile. Let's bring this home.

What if there never was any Brics job for former cabinet minister Nhlanhla Nene but that the president, in a genuine attempt to prevent further economic collapse, lied for the sake of the country? What if Penny Sparrow did not, in fact, feel an ounce of remorse but in a desperate attempt to protect her family from what must have felt like a tsunami of public outrage, rushed an apology in the hope of some relief? What if the Department of Education knows that there has been a massive failure on the part of government to bring even a semblance of equality across a massively unequal school system - but that to admit this would be to concede that those in power have failed the poor? So they lie in the annual announcement of the National Senior Certificate results.

Please do not get me wrong. I am not for one moment suggesting that lying is acceptable or that politicians, of all people, have the right to deceive those who elected them. I am simply asking for pause, a little bit of self-reflection, and the acknowledgement of the grey areas that exist in the rough and tumble of everyday life when we tell lies.

Which reminds me of a newly married man who lost his job. For much of the year he could not bear telling his excited new wife that he was laid off at work. So he allowed her to pack in his lunch every single day as he left early in the morning to go to a job that did not exist. He borrowed money and used his savings so that it seemed he was bringing home a salary. What would she think of him?

His self-confidence would be shattered, her cynical parents would have unleashed the "I told you so" warning to their daughter, and her disappointment would have been too heavy to bear. So he lied.

I used to judge him harshly then. No more.

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