Monthly Archives: March 2017

Lying Liars Who Lie


When my children were younger, I didn’t really mind so much when they would lie to me. After all, lying is a skill just like anything else, and the only way we get better at the things that require skill is the same way we get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. I think that (if we’re being honest about lying), most people feel the same way. It’s the reason why we find all those YouTube videos of toddlers blaming the cat for their misadventures with the Sharpie to be adorable rather than infuriating. Aw look, we all say, they’re so little they can’t even lie properly. How cute.

Of course, I (and every other parent) becomes significantly less amused when, ten years down the road that mischievous toddler turns into a surly teenager, and their lies remain just as inept. Because at that point their lies are no longer bad because they lack the skills to do it well (years and years of sometimes successful lying have finally given them those talents), but rather because they lack the desire. A toddler lies poorly because they are too ignorant to do it well; a teenager lies poorly because they think you are too ignorant to be worth the trouble to do it better. And that, even more than the lie itself, is what is so infuriating.

And also explains why our country’s current administration is so infuriating to so many usually apolitical people.

The great Judge Judy once famously said, “Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining,” meaning that the lie itself was insult enough: don’t insult me a second time by not even bothering to make it a good lie. Over the years the plaintiffs that appeared in her court (or at least the viewers watching them) learned that lying to Judge Judy was the quickest way you could lose a case: she trained her courtroom to know that about her. Just as we, as parents, hopefully trained our children to understand that the lie was always going to be punished worse than the crime—I’m sure I’m not the only parent who has ever choked back a bitter lecture about drinking simply because I got the midnight call for rescue from the offending party, and not the police.

The question then becomes, how do we train the President (and the President’s surrogates) not to lie—or rather, not to lie so badly? Because every time we get distracted by just how bad some of them are at lying, we are taking our eyes off of the big picture (what they’re lying about), and being distracted (yet again) by the darting red laser pointer of the lie itself.

I propose that we train them the same way we train our children: we ignore it. Not that we ignore the transgression, but rather, that we ignore the lie that accompanies it. When your toddler insists that “the cat” was the one who drew all over the walls with marker, you don’t fire up Wikipedia to prove to them that, lacking opposable thumbs, a cat would never have been able to open the marker, let alone wield it. You don’t “fact-check” their conspiracy theories about who might have “stolen” their homework. (Or at least you shouldn’t.)You proceed as if the lie had never happened. And you work to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.

Because it’s important that it doesn’t happen again. (Change “cat” to “Obama” and “marker” to “Russia” and I think you’ll see where I’m going here.)

Look, to be honest, I don’t know if it’s even possible, at this point, to change the behavior of a septuagenarian. In all likelihood, it isn’t. But it is still possible to change our reaction. It is still possible to punish the crime, and ignore the feeble attempt at a cover-up that accompanies it. All we have to do is keep our eyes on that prize.

And away from that oh-so-infuriating laser pointer.


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Scrolling through the news recently, I came across a picture of a man at a town hall meeting. He was in the audience, but turned away from the speaker so that he could shout at an unseen person behind him. You could tell he was shouting because his mouth was open wide, as were his eyes and even his nostrils: everything about his posture screamed anger. The caption simply read, “Man shouts ‘whore’ at town hall.”

What immediately struck me about this picture was how eerily similar it was to a picture I had grown up seeing in history books: that of Hazel Bryan screaming at Elizabeth Eckford as Elizabeth is escorted away from Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas. Elizabeth was one of the Little Rock Nine, the group of students who first integrated Central High in 1957. Hazel was also a student there. They were both very young, although in the picture they both look much older, a combination of the seriousness of the situation and the fact that they are dressed very nicely. In that picture, Hazel is frozen in time. We look at the 1950s fashions and we assume, correctly, that everyone else in the photo has grown and changed—some have even died, given that the picture will be sixty years old come this September—but as for Hazel, she stays the same in our minds. S he is the embodiment of an evil, repressive system. Cold. Unfeeling. Unchanging.

It’s not true, of course. She was only fifteen at the time, and within five years she would go behind her family’s back to track down Elizabeth and apologize to her, but that apology wasn’t recorded the way the insult was: it disappeared as soon as the words were said. The photograph still outranks it, and always will. And that is something that Hazel will always have to live with.

As will the man in the town hall photo.

I wonder, sometimes, about the people who are caught out like that, whether in a photograph or a screen shot of hateful comments they’ve spewed via text or social media. I’d like to think that those moments represented them at their very worst, and, like Hazel, they will spend the rest of their lives trying to atone. But then again, I’d like to believe that people, by nature, are basically good.

And maybe they are. Maybe that man yelling “Whore!” so loudly that you could almost feel the spittle was just letting the local brothel keeper (a lovely lady whose name slipped his mind at that moment) know that it was her turn to speak on the issue of local businesses donating to the yearly holiday decorations budget. Or maybe he has Tourette’s.

Or maybe he was just using the word he knew best, the word that has been historically used to silence women when they have had the temerity to speak out, especially when they speak out for themselves. The same way that Hazel was using the word she knew best to silence Elizabeth.

Are the two situations really that similar? Intersectionality would suggest that they both are, and are not (a sort of of a Schrodinger’s Cat of discrimination). And anyway, the point is not so much how much the victims suffered, but rather how much damage the perpetrators ended up doing to themselves.

When they were younger I tried to impress upon my children that a word spoken could never be recalled: “You can’t unring a bell,” I’d tell them. That even if the person you offend ends up forgiving you, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll ever manage to forgive yourself. Some weapons hurt the wielder more than the intended victim. And sometimes, the scars they leave are permanent.

Just ask Hazel Bryan.


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