America’s lying problem

Statue of Themis
Image from Wikimedia Commons

We’re in the midst of a lying epidemic, according to James B. Stewart, author of Tangled Webs: How False Statements Are Undermining America: From Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff.

Telling the stories of Martha Stewart, Bernie Madoff, Barry Bonds, and “Scooter” Libby, Mr. Stewart explores how and why people at the top of their field deliberately toss trustworthiness out the window.

“Obviously they all thought they had done something wrong, they couldn’t admit it, they were going to hide it, and it was easier to lie and cover it up,” Stewart said in an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition.

Part of the problem is that people can’t bring themselves to admit that they’ve done something wrong. And it seems this sort of lying isn’t exclusive to billionaire entrepreneurs and athletes. Stewart noted in the interview, “[E]very single prosecutor told me that they felt it was an epidemic, that it was out of control. One of them said, ‘Every day I come into work expecting to be lied to….'”

What’s the solution?

“You have to have people being held accountable for breaking the law, and then you have to have encouragement for people who do the right thing,” Stewart said.

But also, telling these cautionary tales, illustrating how tangled up people get in their own webs, can arm us with good sense to admit to our mistakes and honestly face the consequences.

The stories of Madoff, Stewart, Bonds, and Libby all show that lying – to protect your reputation, make money, or preserve your positive self-image – comes out eventually, destroying whatever it is you wanted to save. Lying also tends to destroy the lives of the people around the liar. In the interview, Mr. Stewart recalled that Martha Stewart’s lying shattered the life of the young stock broker’s assistant who got caught up in her scheme.

Click here to listen to the interview.

Related: See CC! President Michael Josephson’s commentary “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

5 replies
  1. Jon
    Jon says:

    In my classroom, honesty is priority #1. Unless we teach kids the value of truth early on, we’ll never change our society.

    Reply
  2. Jara
    Jara says:

    You’ve nailed the fundamental problem of politics, law and education in America. Too often, B.S. is rewarded with what Americans value: money, fame, popularity, and power. I agree that the “fall from grace” stories can help deter some. However, the Americans with big egos who think the fallen are just not as slick as them will never learn this lesson until they, too, are the fallen.

    Reply
  3. Rajpriya
    Rajpriya says:

    We have all lied at some point or the other in our lives. However, when I look at all these situations, they were due to my inability to face the truth or to face the reactions of people around me. Why are we not taught to stand strong and own up to our stuff. This kind of teaching is simply absent. We are simply taught that telling tales is wrong, bad etc.. Why are we not instead taught how to be strong, form our inner character. I guess this is where Character Counts makes the difference and does it all. Can we bring something like that in the education system world-wide so that it permeates the family fabric, society, all institutions and organisations?

    Reply
  4. Art Rutherford
    Art Rutherford says:

    I learned to lie when little. If I told the truth, I got in trouble. If I lied I didn’t. Guess what I learned to do? But, many years later, I have experienced the fallen part of it all. I wish I could have learned to tell the truth.

    Reply
  5. Mike Fisher
    Mike Fisher says:

    Just in my lifetime, I don’t have to look very hard to find examples. John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, not to mention the senators, and congressmen. Who wants to grow up to be president?

    Reply

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