How many lies have you told today? Perhaps you called in sick because you needed a day of rest (never say "food poisoning," by the way. Your boss knows that five glasses of wine, and not a festering oyster, is the cause of your malaise.) Perhaps you're too exhausted for that date with a friend, and begged off by claiming your child is sick. Perhaps that child now believes that babies do, in fact, come out of mommies' belly buttons, because you really weren't up to revealing the whole head-spinning truth at 6 a.m.
The point is, we all lie, all the time, even if we deal in euphemism – white lies, fibs, exaggerations, sins of omission. We lie to ourselves, and to others. I have already told two lies today, neither of them huge, but both of them part of the little trash heap of deception we each create and then sweep up every day.
Two lies before suppertime? Then I'm a bigger fibber than most, according to a eye-opening new book by the British writer Ian Leslie, Born Liars: Why We Can't Live Without Deceit. Most people only average one-and-a-half lies per day, according to research Mr. Leslie cites. Strangers meeting for the first time will tell each other three lies within the first 10 minutes.
Before you reach for your rosary, there's more: "Lying isn't a perversion of our nature," writes Mr. Leslie, "it's central to it." Early humans learned to lie as a way of surviving in groups (winning food and mates, and avoiding a club to the head, through deceit). Later humans built relationships that rested on tissues of lies: "What an extraordinarily pretty hat. Now will you sleep with me?"
In the rush to judge Rep. Anthony Weiner, maybe we should look at our own balance sheets (and I'll try not to make any more puns on the poor man's name, hard as that may be.) Already the sanctimonious hordes are baying that Mr. Weiner's sin wasn't just that he texted pictures of his genitals to random women, but that he lied about it. Initially, after his private member's bill hit Twitter, the married congressman told a TV reporter. "I was hacked, it happens to people, you move on." At a press conference on Monday, he changed tack like a captain spotting an iceberg far too late. The tawdry tweets were indeed his, and he was sorry.
This was the same week that the U.S. jobless figures climbed to 9.1 per cent, so the proper response should have been "Who cares?" But the thing is, Mr. Weiner did what so many of us do daily – he lied. He made two mistakes: He did it publicly, and he confirmed people's worst suspicions that politicians' main purpose in this life is to lie like rugs.
"Anthony Weiner lied to the country about his sexual misconduct online," wrote Mr. Weiner's former girlfriend, Kirsten Powers, on The Daily Beast web site. "He also lied to me." His lies, she added, were "extensive and sociopathic." Hillary Clinton is the boss and mentor of Mr. Weiner's wife; both Clintons were said to be disappointed in the congressman's behaviour. (This is rich, considering that it hasn't been that long since Bill Clinton was playing footsie with the truth. Perhaps he has spent the years since the Lewinsky scandal contemplating what the meaning of "is" is.)
What leads men like Mr. Clinton and Mr. Weiner to risk so much for so little? One of the answers lies in Mr. Leslie's book: Self-deception is a powerful force, especially among the powerful. Essentially, the more accomplished you are, the more you lie to yourself about yourself: I can lose weight; my marriage will survive; I won't get caught with this intern. Mr. Leslie cites a survey of champion swimmers, which showed that those who were the most successful at self-deception also won the most races. The only people who aren't colossal self-deceivers are the clinically depressed.
So if lying is a normal, and at times even necessary function of human life, why are we so hard on politicians who weasel their way out of a jam? Simply because we hold them to a different standard. In our own lives, we recognize that minor deceits don't always lead to huge ones; we're capable of moral calibration. Yet we feel that if a politician tells an inconsequential lie it will automatically mean he or she will lie consistently and without remorse, and on more important issues. But fibbing isn't a gateway drug.
Mr. Leslie writes that we perhaps need to be a bit easier on politicians, and choose our criticism more carefully – holding them to account where it really matters, on economic policy, for example, or the lead-up to war. The problem is that a culture of "radical honesty" has sprung up for those in public life, in which they're damned if they do tell the truth (think of Gordon Brown's election-sinking reference to a voter as "that bigoted woman") and, of course, damned if they don't.
So the next time you complain about some lying SOB in Washington or Ottawa, think of all the other deceits you've accepted happily: The movie star who says she "absolutely loved" the difficult director on her latest film; the husband who tells you that you're as beautiful as the day you were married. These are the things that get us through the day. Oh, and by the way – the cheque is in the mail.