I am sorry to say that honesty appears to no longer be a valued virtue in our society. Many of us stretch the truth to the breaking point or even make up outrageous stories to get what we want, whether it be some type of advantage or just to avoid the consequences of a previous misdeed. The illegality of fraud seems to have been reduced to little more than a technicality.
I say that honesty is “no longer” valued because I believe that, at one time, honesty was standard operating procedure both in the business world and in our personal lives. Perhaps I’m just being naïve and no such halcyon time ever existed. Perhaps we just covered up our deviousness better way back when, while today dishonesty has become so prevalent that it can be practiced openly without fear of denunciation or derision.
Interestingly, parents still expect honesty among their children. Lying, fibbing, telling whoppers and every other variety of prevarication is preached against, strictly prohibited and sternly punished when it rears its ugly head despite our best efforts. I recently posted about parents requiring their kids to share, even though sharing is not at all valued among adults and is, at least to some extent, discouraged. I believe that lying belongs to the same club as sharing. We require such things of our kids not because they need to learn these values to be productive adults, but because sharing and honesty are convenient for parents. How will we know who to punish if Sally blames Johnny for her own misdeeds? We certainly don’t want to look foolish when we’re called into school to account for Jimmy’s behavior when he dishonestly swears up and down that he did not copy from his neighbor’s test paper. The list could go on and on. The fact is that dishonesty among kids makes the job of parenting a lot harder.
Ultimately, of course, kids tend to model their parents’ actions, not their words. “Do as I say, not as I do” is a ridiculous pipe dream and a cop-out to boot. Children who see their parents bending the truth more than just a little (“oh, it’s just a teensy white lie”) are likely to internalize the idea that dishonesty is a perfectly legitimate and convenient technique of getting from Point A to Point B. They may have to wait until adulthood to exercise this prerogative, but then they have the rest of their lives to “do what they have to do” to “get mine.”
When I was a child, my father would tell me such instructive stories as “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and, of course, the myth about George Washington refusing to lie about chopping down the cherry tree. This is the time of year that every bakery and restaurant sells cherry pies in honor of this ridiculous story, designed to teach the virtues of taking the punishment we deserve. The wolf story takes a different approach, warning kids that no one will believe a thing they say once they develop a reputation as a liar. Based on the events of recent decades, I would hazard a guess that the boy who cried “wolf” now works on Wall Street.
As a whole, I believe that we have become a nation of liars. Parents work at teaching their children the difference between fantasy and reality, no thanks to the barrage of Disney movies and animated TV shows. Apparently, parental efforts are not working. As adults, we seem to have lost the distinction between truth and falsehood. We now live in a perverted utopia where the truth is whatever you want it to be.
In court, when a person takes the witness stand, the clerk requires that he or she take an oath to “swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you, God.” I am told that a person who refuses to take this oath is deemed ineligible to testify. One who takes the oath and then knowingly testifies falsely is guilty of the crime of perjury. I have no doubt that many witnesses perjure themselves for many reasons and often go unpunished. Far more sinister, however, is the case of those who manage to convince themselves of the truth of whatever made-up story is most convenient at the time. We don’t particularly expect young children to be able to distinguish between truth and fantasy, but today it seems that many adults are unable to tell the difference either. The concept of our American judicial process is that many witnesses will be examined and cross-examined and that, in the end, the truth will emerge victorious. Often, we depend on juries to determine just what the truth is. This has the capacity to fail on a number of levels, including jurors whose votes express their opposition to the law as written (a phenomenon known as “jury nullification”) and jurors who are themselves so impervious to lying in everyday life that they no longer have the capacity to distinguish between a truth and a falsehood. Then again, one could say that it works out in the end because all the Constitution guarantees is a jury of one’s peers, and it is likely that jurors are no more prone to truth telling than are the defendants or litigants.
My niece shares an apartment with a roommate who is experiencing difficulty in passing his college engineering classes. I am told that he is a foreign student whose wealthy parents send him whatever funds he needs from abroad. However, he is required to account for all of his expenses. Among those expenses was hiring tutors to help him get through. More recently, his parents’ money allowed him to incur the expense of paying others to take his tests for him. If he can’t pass the exams himself, no worries. If you have enough money, you can always take care of whatever little inconvenience comes your away. The fact that this violates the school’s honor code appears to be of no consequence. If his dishonesty were ever discovered, I wonder whether throwing thousands of dollars at the college would prevent him from being expelled. My guess is that, should his luck run out, the family money would bankroll a cadre of lawyers dedicated to the art of obfuscation who would tie the case up in litigation until long after he graduated and returned to his home country.
But who can blame the guy? He’s learned a lot during his short time in the United States. After all, dishonesty is the American way.