Monday, January 4, 2010

2010.01.04 — One Act Play on Falsehood

A Philosophical Play on the the Morality of Falsehood

I wrote this play in response to the Taoist questions of morality philosopher and mathematician Raymond Smullyan raised in his intriguing one act play, Why are you Truthful?, in his book 5000 BC and other Philosophical Fantasies. In this book, as in his many other books, Smullyan, in a Taoist manner, skewers with great glee logical thought and fallacies of logic in well written and extremely entertaining little stories, parables, thoughts, quips and barbs. He also questions accepted truths, such as for example, from 5000 BC:
It has ... been argued that if a person is inconsistent, he will end up believing everything. But is this really so? I have known many inconsistent people, and they don't appear to believe everything. The inconsistent people I have known have not seemed to have a higher ratio of false beliefs to true ones than those who make a superhuman effort to maintain consistency at all costs. True, people who are compulsively consistent will probably save themselves certain false beliefs, but I'm afraid that they will also miss many true ones! (39-40)
I think that ... to be overly concerned about whether one's beliefs are or are not the result of wishful thinking is very bad, ultimately destroying, rather than aiding, the objectivity of one's judgement. Not only that, but this concern may well prevent one from knowing what he really thinks. How many fine thoughts have been repressed because it is feared that they may be only wishful thinking (99)?
From 5000 BC I particularly enjoyed his short one act play, Why are You Truthful? This is a perfectly executed conceit in Taoist inspired writing. It is an humorous and philosophically sophisticated argument that truthfulness is moralistically relative. Smullyan's brilliance is that he makes this argument without actually stating that that is what he is doing using the characters' dialogue.

He concludes the play with the moralistically engaging statement that the truly honest truth-teller is the one unaware of being truthful. This challenges the prevalent idea that truth-telling automatically equals 'good' morality. Moralistically, the unconscious truth-teller is a-moral because being truthful does not require that s/he make a moral choice. And so, in Chuang-Tzu-style, Smullyan arrives at the logical conundrum that so-called pure honesty is amoral. I love these sorts of western-flavoured koans, especially when they are spun with Taoist philosophical humour and chutzpah. And, what is more, I think Smullyan proves, logically, his case because he was able to move his argument outside logic's delimitations.

My little old brain puzzled and mulled over some of the philosophical consequences of this. I thought, that if Smullyan's conclusion – well, not Smullyan's, as such, as his conclusion is a re-iteration of a great deal of Taoist/Zen thinking – anyway, I thought that if this argument is sound, then the same argument will be able to be made from the opposite direction.

I felt that that was probably true, but I needed to explore the argument outside my head. So I put it out onto e.paper in the form of a one act play. I did so because it is a great form for this kind of playful thinking, again, in the nature of Chuang-Tzu's Taoist writing.

But, more to the point, I wrote my own play in order to provide Smullyan with my highest form of praise: so in imitation of "Why are you truthful?' I wrote 'Why are you False?' a contrarian play in one act.

Now a pair of plays, that, if I have been lucky, will be more than the sum of their parts paired.


To read Smullyan's Why are You Truthful, click here. I strongly recommend that you read Smullyan's play before reading mine. Continue below to read my commentary on Smullyan's play, and then to read my play, Why Are you False?

e.gajd's commentary on Smullyan's play, 'Why are you Truthful?'

I have two quibbles with his play, although my quibbles are not, I think, insignificant. The second relates to our living in what I have called "The Age of False Sincerity." What I mean by that is that the business and political worlds have merged in their application of propaganda to achieve their goals of money and power. This idea is perhaps best summarized in a great little 'affirmation' which goes:
Sincerity is the secret of success. Once you can fake that, you can do anything.

And this 'false sincerity' is what drives the whole corporate 'team' propaganda, for example, or 'the future is friendly' kind of advertising.These common language markers are widespread across all corporate North America. And that suggests that the MBAs who drive the corporate world are dogmatic regurgitators of what they have been taught with regards to the importance of the idea of sincerity, but only as a concept that can be used to achieve business goals (ie. manipulate people), and not as a state of being.

Smullyan's play is founded on the implicit understanding, or accepted "wisdom," perhaps, that it is the truth teller who is somehow "superior" to the liar. I put it to you that s/he who "always tells the whole truth and nothing but the truth" is likely to be the locus of trouble, either in or about him or herself or in or about others. In general the dogmatic application of any 'truth' has lead to much evil, and that applies even to the dogmatic application of truthfulness, which can be hurtful and destructive. Yes, even though it may go against our inbred moralistic breeding, there are times in which the white lie or the still tongue is invaluable.

Interestingly enough, the acknowledgement of this idea is one of the key principles in AA that mark the organizations as being founded with some wisdom. What I am referring to is step 8, which is to 'Make a list of all persons we had harmed, and become willing to make amends to them all,' being tempered by step 9, which reads 'Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.'

Does this make me a "moral relativist?" Probably. However "moral relativism" is an ideology whose dogmatism I would proudly evangelize, if I were so inclined. Fortunately, I am not that way inclined because I am not a dogmatic moral relativist. I am, instead, an inconsistent moral relativist because I am only a moral relativist when it suites me to be one. And I feel fully justified in this wishy-washy stand by allegory, experience, and gasp, even the Bible. Now does that write me off as just an irreverent irrelevant relativist?!? More than likely!

But moral relativism is very old, and was described with subtlety and great imagery by Matthew when he wrote:
"Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you." Matthew 7:6.
What Matthew is saying here is that pearls, i.e. wisdom or truth, when given to those unprepared or not ready for it, can be hurtful to them and they may, in anger, lash out and disembowel the so-called sage who unwisely gave them the truth. Thus, "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth" becomes, when unwisely proffered, a source of unnecessary distress and conflict, something which moral proselytizers rarely understand but ten year olds do:
My young brother asked me what happens after we die. I told him we get buried under a bunch of dirt and worms eat our bodies. I guess I should have told him the truth – that most of us go to hell and burn eternally – but I didn't want to upset him. — An Anonymous 10 year old boy.
And the second quibble I have with Smullyan's play is that "true" childlike behaviour, while superficially having a certain Taoist or idealized naturalistic appeal, is in actual fact dangerous if couched in the ignorance and naïvete of the true child. The question I would like answered is whether or not Simplicus is merely a fool who would, while looking at the heavens, blithely walk off a cliff with his dog yapping at his heels? Or is he in fact the sage who has gone past the distinctions between black and white and, like Lao-Tzu, can ride with impunity on the back of the ox and say with a straight face

Those who know do not speak; Those who speak do not know.
One final comment: if, as is assumed by Smullyan (and many others!), honesty is not only the best policy, but one which is highly rewarded, why is it that we have come to live in an age in which the level of one's remuneration is often, or even almost always, in direct proportion to the level of one's competency at dissembling and sycophancy – not counting professional athletes?
And with that thought I wrote my own mini-play to explore the 'moral relativism of truthfulness'. I have titled it "Why Are You False?"
Why Are You False?

A Play in One Act by

In this play, a statistician has invited 13 people to a luxurious dinner in order to explore why people are false. There is one un-invited guest, who is a moralist.
Personæ Dramatis (15)

Moralist (uninvited guest)

STATISTICIAN: I have gathered you fine people here today because you are easily the greatest dissemblers on the planet. [There can be heard general grumbling of discontent – and at least one peel of laughter.] Now please, please, calm down. I know that many of you felt – feel that your deceptions are so successful that it was impossible for anyone to have detected them, and so I understand why you are upset. But it was your very success that enabled me to find you. [Grumbling again, but muted.]

GRANT: That doesn't make sense! I don't know about the rest of the people here, but I am sure they would agree with me that you must be some kind of grifter, or bad con artist. And while I'm not admitting to lying, how could you know we are liars if, as you aver, we are the best in the world at it?

STATISTICIAN: I simply looked for people who were unimpeachable – and with only one exception, you all are far, far beyond even the scent of mendacity. Then I applied some statistical analysis to your backgrounds and successes and presto, out went first the investigators I hired and shortly thereafter the RSVP's. I assure you, you are the crème de la crème from a list of thousands. And here you all are – all but one. She I attribute to statistical error, that cursed outlier that can turn truth to fiction.

GRANT: I protest! This is a complete abuse of your professional position as a statistician! I can't speak for the others, but I am sure they would agree with me that being singled out in this manner is not only highly unethical, but slanderous and, I would imagine, a serious crime. I see no reason why we should not simply walk out now! [Sounds of general agreement.]

STATISTICIAN: Please, Grant, I assure you – all of you – that your presence here will not be disclosed to the public. And despite my trade's reputation, you can trust me that the reality of your secrets is safe here. Consider what this symposium is about! No one here can gain by disclosing their presence. To the public this gathering has been given the gloss of a moral examination of the issue of lying, and any hint of the real truth of your – our –presence here could harm our public reputations. My intent with this symposium is to explore what it is that makes us – I mean people, in general – lie. And from that, perhaps, we may glean what it is that makes successful liars. I expect, or at least hope, that each of us will take this opportunity to learn from the proceedings – and from each other. However, if simple curiosity is not enough to keep you here, perhaps what is learned may improve upon your already impressive professional successes. [Noises of a mixed yea/nay nature.] And, finally, if that isn't enough to get you to at least hear what the others say, whether or not you participate, I have in the next room a bribe consisting of a generous buffet of the most exquisite specialties. When I had you investigated I paid extra to learn what foods give your palates the greatest pleasure. Wonderful food has been prepared by a top chef, and is, of course, accompanied with a liberal supply of the world's best wines, champagnes and bottled waters. [Sounds of "Well, since we're here already" and the like.]

GRANT: Well, I can't speak for the others, but since you've got us here, and have gone to such lengths, I guess we could at least stay for a while. And, like you say, we might learn something, although I doubt it.

STATISTICIAN: Excellent! Then without wasting any more time, let me begin with you, Grant, since you don't speak for anyone else. Tell us, why are you false?

GRANT: For the very simple reason that the Bible does not unvaryingly condemn it. Matthew transcribed God's word advising us not to cast our pearls before swine. I have yet to be in the company of people whom I consider to be much above either dogs or swine. Thus, I keep to my Self the truths that most, if not all, people are incapable of either appreciating or handling. Even my parents, whom scripture demand I honour, are simple people. So I respect and honour them in the manner appropriate to their lot, and keep from them that which they cannot understand. Thus I have done as God commanded for His greater good. If that makes me a liar, so be it. I have God's blessing.

STATISTICIAN: I understand. Now Hilary, why are you false?

HILARY: Like Grant, I hold the Bible in high regard. Interestingly enough I also find in Matthew God's purpose in lying. However, in my case it is his so-called "Golden Rule." Since I want others to keep from me pain and hurt, I do my best to avoid hurting others. In my experience the truth is often very hurtful. Thus I choose to keep from others painful truths. Also, it has always struck me that the ten commandments don't actually forbid lying. I think it is the ninth, which goes "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour." This implies to me that I am forbidden to lie if my intent is to hurt my neighbours. Since that is not my intent, not only do I feel it is okay to lie but that The Bible doesn't actually condemn it.

STATISTICIAN: Interesting. Ivan, why are you false?

IVAN: I lie for the very simple reason that as a gay man, I have had no significant experience of truthfulness in my life. My parents lived a lie – my father was a violent misogynist and my mother a lesbian-in-denial. Their marriage was a sham and their love and respect for their children highly conditional. Furthermore, what was taught to me in school as important I distrusted at the time. As an adult I have acquired the experience to know that I was invariably correct in my youthful condemnation of my so-called education. I know now that most, if not all, that was taught to me was biased in one way or another so as to support one sort of ideology or another, or one version of history or another. This is now reaffirmed by today's media, which promulgates propaganda far more than it does unbiased truth. A few years ago I had my understanding of this reality of life confirmed by Carl Jung. He wrote that the aching desire for a singular truth is so precious that nobody wants to let it slip into delusion even when faced with irrefutable evidence of that truth's emptiness. Since, in my experiences beginning with being a gay man and extending to just everything I've been taught, everyone lies about everything, so do I. It is the only way I can survive. However, this liars symposium – or whatever it is – re-affirms that there may actually be something called "truthfulness." And since I have, of course, heard of such a thing and even have experienced a bauble of truthfulness on occasion, this symposium has re-kindled my curiosity about such a state: can truthfulness be more than just an exception to the rule? So, it would seem that I will leave here having gained, perhaps, at least something: I will go home and research what it means to be truthful. I do not believe that it exists, except in some kind of utopia. But it seems like an interesting idea to think about.

STATISTICIAN: Thank you, Ivan. I hope you don't mind if I recommend that you start your research into truthfulness by reading Raymond Smullyan's one act play, "Why are you Truthful?" It has an interesting and entertaining approach to what motivates people to be truthful. Even though I find it extremely idealistic – I've never actually seen any of Smullyan's characters in the nitty-gritty of real life – the ideas presented are challenging. Now, Jane, why are you false?

JANE: I lie because life is funny. I have heard it – life I mean – described as a kind of practical joke. And this imagery of life I love for many reasons, but mostly because it makes enduring the prating ideologues and other moralists espousing their bile rather entertaining.

MORALIST: [And uninvited guest, stands.] As an honest, and serious moralist, I take great offense to that! Morals are what the wise and good person uses to guide him or herself towards a moral, hence proper life! This makes the moralist the most –

JANE: [Laughing.] See what I mean? [Laughter increases.]

MORALIST: – important philosophers and teachers! We moralists take what we do very seriously. [More laughter, louder.] I don't see why you people are laughing. In life, being able to distinguish between good and evil is extremely important! Just look to history to see what evils have been wrought because of moral ignorance!

JANE: [Trying not to laugh.] And this just proves my point, because in a way I agree with you! But not your rules-based solutions to the problem of good and evil, which Jung also condemns when he wrote that 'There is no morality without freedom.' You moralists have failed to see the trees for the forests of life because you don't trust the winds of true freedom blowing through their limbs!

MORALIST: That's not true! The ultimate human freedom is our ability to choose to cage the leviathan that resides in all our hearts! Our refinements of logic and perception over the centuries have –

STATISTICIAN: [Over loud laughter] Enough! I will not have my guests interrogated by someone who has crashed my symposium. Since you are an uninvited "guest," please keep your 'prating' to yourself. And sit down! Please. Now Jane, I didn't quite understand your response. Please, clarify what you mean when you said that you "lie because life is funny."

JANE: Certainly. What I mean is that the world is a wholeness, with ugliness and beauty, good and evil, truth and falsehood, intermingled in such a way as to render their separation – especially as practiced by idealistic moralists! – an extremely silly exercise. As the Taoist philosophers say about good and evil, sunshine and rain fall on both equally, with one or the other rising and falling according to their time. However, Lao Tzu wrote something that perhaps best describes what I mean. How did he put it? He wrote ...

If the Tao is present in the world,
The cunning are not mysterious.
Not only are the cunning not mysterious,
Their mystery does not harm others.

Amazingly enough, I have been reading one of the west's now neglected philosophers, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Marcus Aurelius has a similar view! For example, he wrote the challenging and very Taoist idea that evil does no harm at all to the universe, especially from one person to another. Therefore I lie to see people's reactions. I have learned that I can and do trust those who see through my lies. Also, The Bible, in perhaps its most Taoist book, The Book of Job, supports my beliefs that life is a joke and that lying is useful. And since moralists seem least able to distinguish between what is true and what is false, I trust them the least and make them the butt of my rather childish humour whenever I can.

STATISTICIAN: Okay, I agree with your assessment of moralists. But otherwise you have completely lost me! I must admit I am not that familiar with Taoist philosophical ideas. Probably because the little I've read of it strikes me as being irrelevant and even, if I were forced to admit it, as silly as Winnie the Pooh. The world Taoists describe is not the world I experience. But I am quite sure that The Bible, perhaps even especially The Book of Job, nowhere suggests, let alone supports, the idea that life is 'a joke.' Instead the overwhelming feeling The Bible evokes is just how serious is the business of life – and death.

JANE: Then you haven't really read the Book of Job – or, more precisely, like most inculcated in the idea of the 'good' Christian's typically unbalanced view God's uniform 'goodness,' you have misread that book.

STATISTICIAN: What do you mean?

JANE: In order to answer that, you need to know the story. And since most here have probably either not read it – it being one of those weird Old Testament things skipped over in Sunday school and church – or have only a vague remembrance of it, I'd like to recap the story. Is that okay?

STATISTICIAN: Yes, but please make it brief.
JANE: Right. The book opens describing how blessed and opulently wealthy is Job. One day Satan comes to God and bets him that when the going gets tough, the blessed will forsake Him. God accepts the bet. Satan –

STATISTICIAN: Wait! I don't remember the story well, but I am sure that The Book of Job does not have God accepting a wager from Satan!

JANE: Well, cleverly, it's not described as a bet! Of course not, silly! But, nonetheless, basically Satan challenges God with the resoluteness of good men. Amusingly, Job is chosen by Satan because God, in boastful way, singled him out to Satan as being 'perfect'. Satan, with some justification, is dubious about that perfected piety, and challenges God to test Job's character. And God agrees to this! Now, that's about as close as one can get to a bet without actually calling it one. [Grumbling/mumbling/chatter gets loud. Jane turns to the statistician.] May I continue?

STATISTICIAN: Hmmm. That's an interesting perspective, Jane. I haven't heard it presented that way. Yes, please, proceed.

JANE: As I was saying, it is Job who gets to be the bet's butt – or 'butt puppet' as I've heard it colorfully described. The writer of the book clearly and repetitively states that Job is a true God fearing man, filled with honour, truth, integrity, wealth, piety, yadda, yadda, yadda. In short, all the good morals. In fact, God even calls him the greatest of men. I just had a thought – maybe God singled him out because He – God I mean – is a moralist! [Laughter.] Anyway, the bet or joke is extended when Job's friends abandon him because they believe that God does not curse an honest man. Then, even better, God castigates these friends as being unGodly for their having misperceived Job's 'trials' as the deserts of a 'bad' life. Now, please, you can't tell me that that is way up there with the greatest-slash-cruelest of practical jokes ever? For those of you familiar with only Job's boils, what God does to test him is kill every member of his family – ten children and his wife, destroy his farms and thousands of heads of livestock, as well as racking him with infirmities, including boils. And the so-called friends who watch all this unfold, and who understood perfectly that God protects from harm the honest God fearing men, are slammed by God for acting on that understanding when they question the piety of Job! Truly, that is funny! Think about it – the hypocrisy and irony that is rampant throughout the story. And would Satan have even picked Job if God hadn't been ostentatiously bragging about him in the first place?
STATISTICIAN: I still don't quite follow. I mean I see, kind of, the idea that Job's 'troubles' can be viewed that way. But I also think you are mischaracterizing the start of the book. So, while it is an interesting argument, I am not sure if I buy it. And what I do not see at all is how The Book of Job is even remotely Taoist.

JANE: Hmmm. This is actually hard to put into words, because it is more a feeling I have than anything easily articulated. Let me see. How can I express what I feel I mean? [Pause.] Well, for example, the story's beginning reminds me of how the greatest Taoist writer, Chuang-Tzu, begins many of his parables. And that similarity extends into the twisted forms of many of the characters. Somehow even Satan and God's conversation kind of reminds me of how Chuang-Tzu poked fun at the moralizing of Confucius – although I wouldn't push that idea too hard. Also, Job's story can be seen as a kind of proof of a couple of Lao-Tzu's most interesting ideas. If you have a moment, I can find the chapter I mean – I carry a pocket book of the Tao Te Ching with me. I'd rather read from it than trust my memory and fail to paraphrase it well. Is that okay?

STATISTICIAN: I want to say 'No' because you have taken up much more than your fair share of this group's time. But unless there is a strong objection from the anyone here, I am sorry to admit I am a bit intrigued – and still very skeptical. [Turns to the group.] Who here objects to Jane hogging the floor for a few minutes more? [He looks out and counts a few hands.] Go ahead Jane, it seems I am not the only one interested in this.

JANE: Thank you. The chapter I mean, chapter sixty-seven, has always stood out in my mind because it seems antithetical to almost all we in the so-called capitalistic west hold as fundamental truths about human nature and the nature of how best to run things, be that a family, a business or a government. Ah, here it is – I'll skip to the interesting bit. [Reads from a tiny mini-micro pocket book:]
I have Three Treasures that [I] support and protect:
The first is compassion.
The second is moderation.
The third is daring not to be first in the world.

Now none of you here, with our Judeao-Christian background can say without lying [laughs]lying – get it? can say without lying that you expected anything like 'daring not to be first' to follow the good Christian sounding and morally sanctified 'compassion' and 'moderation.' But it gets better!

With compassion one becomes courageous: [Aside.] Fine.
With moderation one becomes expansive. [Aside] Okay, too. It even hints of Weber's Protestant ethic theory of capitalism.
In daring not to be first in the world,
One becomes the instrument of leadership. [Aside] What?! Sounds like nonsense, doesn't it?

But now for the best bit:
Now if one is courageous without compassion,
Or expansive without moderation,
Or first without holding back,
One is doomed!

And isn't that what happened to Job? Not only was Job immoderately expansive – ten kids, thousands of heads of livestock – but he was first in God's eye! And was then smote down by God Himself! It was only when he'd lost everything that he got everything! Let me see if I can find –


JANE: But I –

STATISTICIAN: No! You can't honestly believe that ... that eastern malarky, can you?! It doesn't make any sense at all. And I imagine your next nugget of pearled archaic Asian wisdom will be something similar.

JANE: Well, sor –

STATISTICIAN: [Waves her quiet.] I can see I won't get any understanding from you. Feelings?! Remind me not to talk to any one who likes this Taoist crap. And speaking of hypocrisy, you, of all people, have nerve enough to poke fun at moralists?! Give me a break! [Starts to turn to the next person on his list.]

MORALIST: [To Statistician] I knew it! I just knew it! You are a moralist, after all!

STATISTICIAN: I am not! And didn't I tell you to be quiet?!

MORALIST: Yes you are! And the worst kind, too, the closet moralist, the one who thinks that their professional credentials have somehow elevated him or herself above morality! I –

STATISTICIAN: Quiet! I am not here to argue with you, so please keep your mouth sh– closed! [He turns to the next person on his list.] Kelly, why are you false?

KELLY: As a successful corporate lawyer, it is simply part of what I do for my clients. And, it would seem, I do it well or I wouldn't have been invited to what I hope is going to be a tax deductible meal – which reminds me. I'll need a receipt for attending this ... this 'symposium'.

STATISTICIAN: But there is no cost to you to be here – you are a guest.

KELLY: I assure you that that doesn't matter. You have publicly stated that this is a charitable – or at least non-profit – event. As a gesture of good will, in the corporate world, you are expected to give us a tax-deductible receipt for our share of the cost of being here. I'll explain later. Now where was I? Guilt or innocence, truth or falsehood, or antiquated ideas of right or wrong play no significant role in determining what I need to do or not do. I simply follow the letter of the law so as to maximize the benefit to my clients. In this way I am serving the best interests of society, in the long run. Some argue against what we do because often it appears to hurt individuals or the society in the short run. But the short run does not interest me. It is the long run which counts. For example, when governments followed Keynes's advice and began meddling with short run economics, that is when our capitalist society began to fail. I am simply doing my best to restore to the economy the wisdom of Adam Smith's tried and tested economic principles.

STATISTICIAN: Adam Smith's economic model requires lawyers? But I thought that Smith's governing economic principle was 'the invisible glove'?

KELLY: Perhaps that was true, in Smith's time. But now, with the complexity of international trade law in such things as establishing and closing export processing zones, and to avoid environmental and shipping do-gooder laws, lawyers are, in effect, that 'invisible glove' of Smith's. Without us world trade would grind to a halt.

STATISTICIAN: Thank you, Kelly. I understand. Lance, why are you false?

LANCE: Well, until today I would have said that I lie because the Bible tells us not to. I didn't know that the Bible said that it was okay to lie. Thank you, Jane, Hilary and Grant! I have actually learned something, and it looks like I might just have to actually read that book.

STATISTICIAN: Excuse me, Lance, I don't quite understand you. Please elaborate.

LANCE: Certainly. I was the youngest child of fifteen. All around me was poverty and starvation, sickness and death. Three of my siblings died because of it. And while they did, at the centre of town, there sat a huge church like a palace, smugly guarding its expanding horde of gold. What I learned from watching the poor giving their money to the church was that I liked that Satan and Judas had the guts to defy such an unfair God. Ever since then I have done my best to reject God. And while I think that Satan was, in a way, honest in his so-called betrayal of God, one of the least hurtful ways for me to reject God is by lying. It goes against what I have understood to be a key part of the popular Christian ethics, and is far less hurtful to the people around me than adultery or murder. Defying the other ones seems... well, anaemic, at best.

STATISTICIAN: I see. How perverse. Monica, why are you false?

MONICA: My reasons are similar to Lance's, in that I do it because the Bible appears to forbid it. However, my motivation is completely different than his and closer to Jane's and, curiously enough, has some suggestion of Nietzsche's philosophy. I do it because the whole Judaeo-Christian emphasis on goodness – or, more specifically, their emphasis on eliminating evil from life – is unbalanced and unnatural and leads to artificial and hurtful distinctions between good and bad, black and white.

MORALIST: You mean to say you have chosen to lie because of some perverted sense of morality? That makes a mockery of moral thought! It is in fact moral bankruptcy! You are effectively declaring yourself to be doing good by doing bad. Lance's and the others reasons – except Jane's – I can understand, but lying because there is too much "emphasis" on goodness is, is, is....I don't know what it is! I am at a loss for words –

STATISTICIAN: Good! Then please stop pestering my guests! I repeat, we are not here to criticize their answers! We are here to learn from them. And don't forget, you are an uninvited "guest."

MORALIST: But when someone says something so outrageously false, how can you expect those of us who know better to remain silent? Even you have questioned your guests. And Socrates himself warned against the un-examined life! We who know the truth are obligated to teach the ignorant of their ignorance, or as Marcus Aurelius puts it, men exist to teach each other. Pursuant to that, how do you expect to learn without critical dialogue? Was not critical dialogue one of Socrates' and Plato's great contributions to civilization?

STATISTICIAN: But we are not here to determine the "truth" of any of my guests answers! So please, be quiet. Sorry about that, Monica. You have my permission to hit him the next time he speaks out. But let me confirm what I think you are saying: you lie because you want to bring 'moral' balance to a life that emphasizes 'goodness' too much?

MONICA: Yes, that is correct. Or maybe my answer's a lie, too!

STATISTICIAN: Thank you for your excellent answer. Now Neve, why are you false?

NEVE: Until I came here I had no idea that I was. Thus, I have no reason for being false.

STATISTICIAN: That I find preposterous! I cannot accept that answer without explanation. [Long pause.] So, please, explain yourself!

NEVE: Okay. I am an existentialist. Unlike Monica and Jane, I have fully accepted Nietzsche's challenge to move beyond good and evil. Furthermore, and to my surprise, I have actually been able to do just that. As a curious, and even unexpected consequence, "lies" and "truths" have become the same to me: I am no longer able to distinguish between them.

STATISTICIAN: So, then, you tell lies because you have become an existentialist.

NEVE: No! Not at all.

STATISTICIAN: But that is what you just said!

NEVE: No, I did not. What I said was that I had no idea that I was being false. But I could have just as truthfully (or falsely!) said that I had no idea I was being truthful. To me they are the same thing. Therefore, how can I possibly have a reason for being one or the other?

MORALIST: Once again, moral bankruptcy! But this is even worse than – [the sound of a shoe hitting his head] OUCH! Stop that!

MONICA: I was told to hit you the next time you spoke up. I did just that. And it was fun! Thank-you.

MORALIST: But did you have to use your shoe?

MONICA: In my experience with moralists, nothing short of death will shut you up. I settled on a good whack across the head. Consider yourself lucky you're living in Canada and not the U.S.!

STATISTICIAN: Quiet, please! Thank you, Monica, but I need to ask Neve another question.

MORALIST: But I thought you said that we are not to engage in critical dialogue. [The sound of a shoe hitting his head.] Owwww!

STATISTICIAN: Stop being pedantic. I said you weren't to participate in the dialogue. Neve, I apologize for the interruption, but I seem to be missing something in your explanation. You said that you are an existentialist.

NEVE: That's right.

STATISTICIAN: But you said that you do not know whether or not you are lying because you are an existentialist?

NEVE: No, I did not. What I said was that as an existentialist I no longer see the distinction between a lie and a truth. Therefore the "fact" that I lie is beyond my conscious awareness. I cannot form the intent to lie – or tell the truth. For all I know I could have been telling the truth all along and you have me here under a false pretence. In either case, I know not why I would either lie or be truthful. When I chose to "move beyond good and evil" I had no idea that my ability to distinguish the false from the true would be a part of that. I know why I became an existentialist, but I do not know why I lie. And again, until today by your accusation, I did not know that I was lying. And I have no way of determining whether or not I will be either truthful or false tomorrow.

STATISTICIAN: Thank you, Neve, I think I understand what you are saying, even though it makes perhaps even less sense than Jane's. Orville, why are you false?

ORVILLE: Like Lance, when I was young I lived in a small, very poor community. My family wasn't as big as Lance's, but there was never enough to go around. One day I saw a huge, brand new truck. It was pulling-up with an even bigger trailer in front of the town's tiny and run-down café. The truck itself was bigger than the entire café! It had the best paint job I had ever seen, chrome plated roll bars and runners, scores of lights big and small, three different antennae, stuffed animals in the window and I don't remember what else. The man had a big hat and a big laugh. The way he casually parked it – he looked to be in complete control. His wife was beautiful and laughed right along with him. When he stepped out of it he walked as if the world were his. I will never forget that image. After they had gone in to get lunch, I took a close look at his truck and trailer. I read the one and only bumper sticker: "He who has the most toys in the end wins!" (This was before politically correct language laws, of course.) Anyway, that bumper sticker became my mantra. I repeated it to myself day and night. It quickly became obvious to me that the only reasonable way to win this race was to take short cuts. Thus I lie to win the race of my life. And, it would seem, I am winning.

STATISTICIAN: Excellent! Preston, why are you false?

PRESTON: Like Neve, I did not know that I was. And as far as I'm concerned, I am not nor have I ever been false. The only reason I haven't walked out of this exercise in depraved so-called morality is because I was hoping to better understand falsehood, since I have to deal with liars and muck-rakers every day of my life. So far I have been sadly disappointed. But I would like to take this opportunity to thank the moralist for his stand.

MORALIST: You're welcome! [The sound of a shoe hitting his head.] OUCH!! Would you stop that?!

STATISTICIAN: I assure you Preston, you do lie. My statistics have clearly shown it – and they do not lie, despite their bad press. Furthermore, you are a politician. [Pause.]

PRESTON: Yes, I am. And damn proud of it, too!

STATISTICIAN: And you have not lied? Even without my statistical evidence, I would find that hard to believe.

PRESTON: Well, there you go! The only reason I entered politics was to bring to it an integrity that has been lacking for many years. I take some pride in my having remained an unknown backbencher, which I attribute to my moral integrity. Furthermore, if I was an elite liar, one as accomplished as your preamble suggested, you would have believed me! Since you do not believe me, it stands to reason, therefore, that I am not a liar.

STATISTICIAN: That's nonsense! Your logical red herrings may fool some of the people some of the time, but that one certainly did not fool me! Just because you said something which I find hard to believe does not infer that you tell the truth any more than my having believed you would have.

PRESTON: So, you admit that I am truthful!

STATISTICIAN: I did no such thing!

PRESTON: I distinctly heard you say you believed me.

STATISTICIAN: I absolutely did not! What I said was that if I had believed you, that belief would not, could not, infer that you were necessarily telling the truth.

PRESTON: Now I don't understand you. Rest assured that if you believed me, then by personal experience in dealing with what is true and what is false, I must be telling the truth. Otherwise how could you have believed me? [Smugly.] I use that principle, as does the corporate media, every day. Not that I like how the media portrays politicians! But they certainly recognize that truth is, simply, what is commonly believed or, far more importantly, what can be made believable. And really, that isn't that far from what moralists do, is it?

MORALIST: It is not at all – [The sound of a shoe hitting his head.] OUCH!!

STATISTICIAN: This is fruitless! But I see why it is you have become a politician. Quentin, why are you false?

QUENTIN: Like Preston, I do not lie. And, also like Preston, I was hoping to learn something fruitful about human nature to assist me in my job. Not only do I have to deal with sycophants, but I am always looking for new insights into what prompts people to buy this and not that. This … "thing," this gathering, has been a waste of time. The only reason I stayed is that I know what my favourite foods and wines are, and I am looking forward to enjoying them and to discovering the other delectable delicacies you have supplied. At least there I may learn something about the eating habits of consumers. Oh! Seeing the moralist get his due was an unexpected bonus. Other than that, though, I've already written this evening off. And, speaking of 'writing off,' Kelly, may I have your business card? My firm may be in the market for a new law firm.

STATISTICIAN: Quentin, you are, I believe, in advertising.

QUENTIN: Yes, I am.

STATISTICIAN: Then your professional life is to get people to buy things, things which they neither really want nor need.

QUENTIN: So? That is what has made the capitalist system great. I don't understand your point.

STATISTICIAN: My point is that you use the media to glamorize and/or exaggerate whatever it is you're selling. If what was sold did even a quarter of the things that the ads say they would, the world would be truly a wonderful place. Thus, your ads are lies – they claim, in general, that this or that air-freshner or cell phone plan, or whatever, has the power to give everyone the "good" life. And that is a claim that is clearly not realized.

QUENTIN: I disagree! Life is wonderful for everyone now! I, just like everyone I know, have several fine cars, great food, and more than one home and great vacations all around the world. I don't see how life could get much more "good." Even your gathering us here is a measure of just how good life is. Oh, I know, I get it: you're referring to those poor communist schmucks. Well, time has made it clear which countries picked the right economic system. They messed up their own beds, let them lie in them, that's what I say. But they are learning. When I think about the billions of customers in China! Now, those will be great times!

STATISTICIAN: You've missed my point. I was actually referring to the homeless in our own country, not the communist 'schmucks' in other countries. Nevertheless, what I was really asking was this: are you not lying when you advertise something as giving such and such a benefit when it is unlikely that it will to the extent implied by the advertisement, if at all?

QUENTIN: That is irrelevant to what I do, so I do not think about it at all. I learned very early on in my career that the only way to successfully sell anything is to believe in it 110%! There is no other truth in selling, even if it is a 'lie'. Therefore, whenever I take on a new client, I fully believe in the efficacy of that client's product, whether it is protection against incontinence or finding the good life drinking piss-water beer while ogling big-breasted women. They are all the same to me. I always believe in them. Always. And as for the homeless? I don't believe they exist! They are the lie promulgated by the bleeding-heart liberals to try to make me feel guilty for capitalizing on being a great capitalist. Since I was able to get what I have by working hard, the so-called homeless, if they exist, are homeless because they are simply too lazy to work!

STATISTICIAN: I see. Robert, why are you false?

ROBERT: Like Preston and Quentin, I do not lie. And like Quentin, the only reason I have stayed this long is for the food. Other than that this evening has been a complete waste of my time.

STATISTICIAN: However, unlike Preston, I have not just statistical proof or implied proof from your profession that you lie, but irrefutable proof of at least one lie.

ROBERT: I do not care what evidence you claim to have or not have! I do not lie! As the CEO of a large international conglomerate, I have maintained an impeccable record. In my long career I have been above all suspicion, beyond all reproach. In fact my reputation is such that I have been recently asked to chair a committee on ethics in the work force. My getting an RSVP from you is further proof, if any were needed, that there are liars, damn liars, and then there are statisticians.

STATISTICIAN: But I have the records of what actually happened when an old rival of yours was found guilty of embezzlement. He went to jail because of records you knowingly falsified.

ROBERT: That is not true! That is some bold-faced lie, and I will have you up on slander charges faster than you can say Rumpelstiltskin! Furthermore, I will see to it that my lawyers and the press vilify you and your reputation. You will never work another day in your life except to clean stinking toilets in some run down, rat infested punk bar!

STATISTICIAN: I understand! The last thing this liars symposium is meant to be is an opportunity for lawyers to get rich on litigation. How many does your firm keep on retainer? A dozen, is it? I withdraw my comment.

ROBERT: And I demand a public apology!

STATISTICIAN: Okay. I, in this place of public discourse, apologize for in any way suggesting that you are anything but what you appear to be. Furthermore, I acknowledge that my source of information was likely not credible, and so I apologize also for having accepted it too readily.

ROBERT: Apology accepted. Hey, you! Moralist! I might have a place for you on the committee on ethics I'm chairing. Here's my card. Give me a call.

MORALIST: Thank-you, I will – [Sound of shoe hitting his head] OUCH!! Would you stop hitting me?

STATISTICIAN: Quiet down you two! We have now come to the final guest. I have left him to last because he is far and above the best liar. He is not just a talented and skillful writer, but his exemplary journalistic instinct for mendacity real and manufactured have put him into the position where hundreds of thousands of readers not only act on his columns as if they were truths, but many will actually espouse them as if they were truths that they had discovered themselves! This unique ability is garnered to him the highest admiration from his peers and many professional, and a few humanitarian, awards. Hence, my having organized this symposium, which is really to honour of him. Please, give a great big hand to Sol! [Mixed applause.] Sol, please, come up to the podium and tell us, why are you false?

SOL: Before I answer you, I would like to ask you, all of you, a question: would any of you mind speaking on the record? And, if you don't mind, would you please sign these release forms so that I can use the tape record I've made of these proceedings? [Loud cries of anger, and Jane, laughing, etc.]

STATISTICIAN: Wait, wait! What are you doing? You signed a contract stating that you wouldn't be taking advantage of any my guests!

SOL: Sue me. Or, more specifically, sue my employers, since they own me.

STATISTICIAN: But you said that you would honour my commitment to the group to keep their anonymity safe, and integrity untarnished?!

SOL: I lied.


As I was writing "Why are you False," I was struck by a distinct difference between the characters in Smullyan's play and mine. It seemed to me that most of my characters were people involved in the grime of everyday life. Smullyan's seemed to be ungrounded, or disconnected from real life in that they lived in an ideal or, perhaps, idealized, world. So I wonder, then, if being truthful is in some way dependent on suspending the connections to life, to be somehow living in a false world? Which then leads me to speculate: is lying almost a necessary condition for being fully alive in the physical world? Idealistically, sentimentally, I would like to think not, but... What do you think?


Jung, C.G. The Practice of Psychotherapy: Essays on the Psychology of the Transference and other Subjects: CW Vol 16, 2nd edition. Pantheon Books: Bollingen Series XX, 1966. Par. 156. (LCCCN 52-8757.) The actual citation is:
In our delusion ridden world a truth is so precious that nobody wants to let it slip merely for the sake of a few so-called exceptions which refuse to toe the line. And whoever doubts this truth is invariably looked on as faithless, so that a note of fanaticism and intolerance everywhere creeps into the discussion.

Jung, C.G. Answer to Job, from Psychology and Religion, CW Vol.11. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973. Tr. R. F. C. Hull. ISBN 0691017859.

Lao-Tzu 老子 The Tao of Power: a Translation of the Tao te Ching. Toronto: Random House of Canada, 1986 Tr. by R. L. Wing. ISBN 0385196377, 9780385196376.

Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. From Vol 12 of Great Books of the Western World, Lucretius, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius. Toronto: Encyclop
ædia Britannica, Inc. 1952. Tr. George Long. Jane's reference is from VIII.55 and the Moralist's from VIII.59, both slightly paraphrased. The actual citations are:
VIII.55: Generally, wickedness does no harm at all to the universe; and particularly, the wickedness of one man does no harm to another. It is only harmful to him who has it in his power to be released from it, as soon as he shall choose.

VIII.59: Men exist for the sake of one another. Teach them then or bear with them.

Smullyan, Raymond. 5000 BC and other Philosophical Fantasies. St Martins Press. ISBN: 0312295162 / 9780312295165 / 0-312-29516-2

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York, NY: Routledge. Tr. by Talcott Parsons. ISBN 0-415-08434-2.

Click here to go to Why are you Truthful? by Raymond Smullyan.

Friday, January 1, 2010

2010.01.01 - On the Maliciousness of Gossip and the Media

A Letter on the Natures of Gossip and the Media:
Benevolent or Malicious?

In 1998 Canadian TV-Journalist Pamela Wallin hosted a discussion on the nature of gossip. The discussion included the media 'problems' President Bill Clinton was having because his Lewinsky peccadillo had been disclosed.

I found the nature of the discussion thought provoking, and I arrived at an interesting conclusion on the nature of the media. That prompted me to write a letter to Ms. Wallin. I was disappointed that neither she nor her staff responded, because I think it would have lead to an interesting discussion on the nature of the media.

Here is that letter, slightly edited post-post.
e.gajd 2010.01.01

September 26, 1998

Pamela Wallin
CBC Newsworld

Re.: Having heard some Gossip on Gossip I Wanted to Gossip too ... Sept 25, 98

Dear Ms. Wallin:

I enjoyed the chin wag on gossip! In part because your guests confirmed what I felt could be "learned" from Clinton's thing, which is that all media is stained off-white.

Well, with a bit more thought that is a bit an exaggeration.

But the idea that gossip stops being gossip when it is malicious is interesting in that maliciousness implies an intent to achieve an end, be that end destructive or benevolent. This suggests, in line with your discussion, that 'true' gossip is a kind of social glue and/or sharing of community, that 'true' gossip is ultimately a sharing and/or display of personal power/knowledge without ulterior gain. Once the gossiper 'shares' the gossip, whatever point of power it had, even if hurtful to someone, is lost and a monopoly of knowledge has been reduced or eliminated.

But that leads to another key distinction between 'true' gossip and the malicious kind, which is that the true gossiper's information/power is freely given away ultimately, even if not immediately, to the benefit of the community in some way. Such as the removal of a monopoly of knowledge. On the other hand, the malicious "gossip" tries to leverage that power to greater power, such as Ken Starr using Clinton's pecker to perk up his own career. It is bemusing that Starr's success or impotence in doing this will depend on how the media leverages his virility in order to complete their agenda fiscal and social!

This then implies a startling assessment of the "good" media: because it purveys "gossip" with the ulterior motives of earning revenues and/or of setting socio-political agenda, it is malicious!