The Suspicious Society

When regard for truth has broken down or even slightly weakened, all things will remain doubtful. -SAINT AUGUSTINE

At the outset of this book we wondered whether more lies than ever are being told. In a sense, the answer to that question is beside the point. Because if we feel more lies are being told—and we obviously do—the effect is the same regardless of whether that feeling is valid: a rising level of wariness. In an era as lie-tolerant as ours, suspicion is inevitable. As bad as deception itself is the sense that we’re being deceived so routinely. From potential mates to prospective employees or even our neighbors, we feel less and less sure whom exactly we’re dealing with, or how much of what they tell us to believe. From potential mates to prospective employees or even our neighbors, we feel less and less sure whom exactly we’re dealing with, or how much of what they tell us to believe.

(…) Even the most ardent postmodern relativist wouldn’t argue that truth telling has no place in human discourse. No society could function on that basis. Civilization would crumble if we assumed others were as likely to lie as to tell the truth. Our social contract cannot survive lying so routine that citizens consider it normal. One sign of a healthy democracy is its citizens’ capacity for outrage when they are deceived. Since Watergate, and Enron, and the cover-up of child-abusing priests, too many of us have resigned ourselves to lying being the norm among public figures. In the process we have become enablers of the post-truth society. Political columnist David Broder once observed that the post-Watergate climate of duplicity was a product of reporters and voters who accepted deception as a way of life. This cynicism is worse than outrage. Strachan Donnelly, president of the Hastings Center in Briarcliff Manor, New York, believes it has led to a vicious cycle. Politicians deceive, their constituents become cynical, expectations for political conduct decline, which in turn makes it easier for politicians to keep deceiving. “We’re getting what we’re asking for, in a way,” concluded Connelly. That is the social cost of constant deception: suspicion followed by resignation. It is not just society that pays for deceptive behavior, however. Individuals do as well. Lying seldom has a positive impact on either the lied to or the liar.

(Keyes, Ralph, The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life, Macmillan, 2004, 213, 228)

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