Pizza, prelates and a President

I recently ran into a couple of friends, who I'll call Jenn and Mark, at an Italian restaurant, just as they were about to be served a 'white' pizza of cheese, sausage and arugula. It took me several minutes to recall that they are committed vegetarians. I commented on the pizza's appeal before I noticed they were playing dietary hooky.

Mark tried to pass it off: "Oh, is that meat?" Sometimes people take a vacation from a regime, no big deal. I do this too, announcing, for example, I am not having a drink, feeling all healthy and virtuous, and then suddenly I have ordered a mojito.

Are we hypocrites? If so, baby hypos. That's a charge that stings, because it strikes at one's integrity. When we fail to meet our standards, or those of a community we respect, we feel shame. However, the facade of perfection is fraught. Every parent has done something that we told our children is wrong, whether drinking milk out of the carton, or telling the white lie that yes, we would love to come to the school's fundraising dinner but unfortunately have other plans.

Whether conscious or an impulse, the occasional, inconsequential lapse does not cause a fit in any but the most rigid. The bigger lapses set off one's moral smoke alarm. Most of us have a sense of what is dishonest or unjust, what a minister friend calls "living outside one's integrity".

Over the past summer, we saw an integrity implosion: lies, exposés and violations—every form of dirty dealing in the news. Prelates charged that the Pope colluded in a cover-up;  an investigative journalist published a book detailing his thesis that the US President is a Russian asset. An actress and her boyfriend paid off an accuser: you know about all this.

I felt disheartened, but also challenged to revisit the principle of integrity in my life. And I am not the only one. A newly-separated friend says she has determined to drop her lifelong modus vivendi.

"Michaela" lied repeatedly to duck areas of her life that she didn't want to face. After her partner insisted on a separation, she asked her father for advice. He said, "Stop the behaviour that makes you lie, and you will stop lying." Ah, the plain-spoken wisdom of a loving parent!  (I suggested she read Sam Harris' essay, "Lying", available here. Harris raises the bar high, but I'm with him.)

Michaela says she couldn't stand the behaviour anymore herself, and I was moved by her courage. I also wondered, What happened to the moral compasses of persons in the papers all summer? When a system is riddled with moral failure, we can't just call someone names (liar, psychopath, bully) and figure we have to live with it.

A slice of sausage pizza is not the thin end of the wedge; to infer that Mark and Jenn's lunch signals moral deficiency doesn't add up for me: we're human, especially in front of a meal. 

But for the serious issues, I want to act when I sense breaches of decency, morality, or social responsibility. Act by my vote, by my presence, support a press committed to publishing the facts, diverse opinions and debates. Turn away from the easy clichés like "It is what it is", which bolster apathy.

And I will continue to think. My friend Beth Adams wrote an insightful post on The Cassandra Pages, "Fact vs Opinion" , which is about critical thinking (and provides a link to an online test). We need to keep our radar operating through all the weaseling.

I only hope there are results along with exposés, and that corrupt institutions will be cleaned out, rebuilt and, if they are worthy, revived.


LauraH said…
Thought provoking as usual. The depth of dishonesty at "leadership" levels is astounding. I'm sure that there has always been some of this going on but the non-stop lying at the "top" has taken it into another realm. Hard to find the words, it's so extreme.

In my own life, I try to act ethically and honestly but there are those niggles. When a friend makes a statement and expects me to agree ...what if I don't? Or I say something and a friend dismisses it rather brusquely...where do I go from there? Have to admit, I tailor my response to the person, some people are less open to discussion and I find it easier to avoid such conversations with them. So I guess that's a form of dishonesty...I hope it's a minor one:-)
Jeannine said…
I question whether or not the lying at the top is any worse than it has ever been . . . or has been for a long, long time. I think sometimes it matters what side you fall on as to whether the lying bothers you more at some times than it does at others. I'm with LauraH - I do tend to tailor my response to the person. I think I'm not brave enough to be totally transparent with everyone. I feel like I know who I can be totally honest with and with whom I just choose to "omit" my totally honest response.
Susan said…
I think lying at the top of political leadership is always wrong--no matter which side you find yourself on. WHY ? Because lying does not service either our country or any other country. Facts are just that and not subject to interpretation.

Thank you Duchesse for a thoughtful essay.
Beth said…
Very thoughtful post. I can't abide lying and was brought up that "the truth will out" -- i.e., you won't get away with it, so don't do it. That's in fact been my experience: eventually the truth does come out. I try never to lie to others, and I hope not to myself, but that's trickier, isn't it?
Duchesse said…
LauraH and Jeannine: Harris' essay (not nearly as long as a book) explores those grey areas and our natural inclination to be honest with those who "can accept it" and politely evasive with those who are not.
The problem with withholding because someone will not react well is that we seal them off from hearing our truth. It's a delicate matter. I no longer agree with the friend who says, "Don;t you LOVE Dixieland?", for example, but neither will I denigrate her choice.
Thank you Sam Harris.

Susan: The press are determined to out lies by politicians (in countries where they can operate freely). You would think this would serve notice on the elected officials telling bald-faced whoppers, but it seems not to deter them.

Beth: Lying to ones'self is distressingly easy to do (for me) but I get a strong message from my body, a queasy unease. And there are other times I am not lying, just being unreasonable.
Gretchen said…
As always, you challenge up to question our choices, and this one is a big one for me, as for others, I suspect. I forced myself to do some ruminating over the past few years on how I wanted to live my life professionally, personally, and with friends and family. First came decisions about clothes, hair, etc, because that was easy. Then, decided what authenticity meant to me, and that was a bit more challenging. Only recently have I done the hard work to think about those moral and ethical decisions I made that I cringe or cower in remembrance, and those I truly am shamed by in my past. I am trying to apologise to those I harmed, and trying to move forward as a more fulsome, authentic, honest person. I am a humanist, and want to be able to leave this mortal coil thinking it was a life decently led. I was not able to say that, and now I want to work to make that a truism. Thank you for the reminder to continue to work on it.
Wendy said…
Thank you for this post and the link to the Cassandra Pages post. A lot to think about and discuss.
LauraH said…
I'll read the essay, it might help me in tricky situations. Thanks.
Liz Rice-Sosne said…
A lie is a lie, is a lie, is a lie, for me anyway. Does one little lie lead to another? Does one little lie lead to bigger lies? Does one become more comfortable with lying if they continue to lie. Better yet - why does one lie? Then of course there is exaggeration (lying). But what's the point of doing it? What did this man with the pizza gain from his "sort of lie?" Why not just say he was taking a vacation from vegetarianism?

I am not criticizing this man. I just do not understand it. Then again I stole $1000.00 when I was 9 years old. I went on to steal more stuff. That is, until I stopped.

I always love your column - whoops, blog.

Duchesse said…
Liz Rice-Sosnes: Now there is a story, a grand at nine. And the etc.!

Most of us tell small lies (and as Beth points out, to ourselves) but have a line we will not cross. Or we do not overtly lie, but we omit certain details. I used tell my mother, I had "been to church". Well I had, but not to the service.

Why do persons lie? Two major reasons:
a) Self-interest: to do or get what they want, and
b) Self-protection: ) to avoid conflict, tension or loss of status

IME the person who lies just to see if he can put it over on people is in the minority.
Unknown said…
I love these thoughtful posts and way you take it for granted that because a person has fun with fashion or whatever, s/he is not a serious participant in life. Mixing the two keeps us positive and undefeated in difficult times.

There seems to be a new wave rolling towards the idea of more integrity in life especially in the younger generation, perhaps, who may be horrified at what the future could bring them. Let's hope it stays real, doesn't turn into a media bandwagon and thereby become diminished.

You can't change others, only yourself. Still a significant change, though. Remember all those poems we read at school about the little boy with his finger in the dyke and what happens for the lack of a horseshoe nail?

Keep on keeping on, Duchess xx
Duchesse said…
Unknown: Thank you; I just imagine I am talking with my women friends, who care about clothes or hair but it's not their raison d'être. The new wave have seen how far the once honourable notion of the public trust has slipped, and I hope they do not fall prey to the same greed and self-interest that has eroded our institutions.

Remember "Don't trust anyone over 30"? And now the younger generations can say it about us, even though it rankles to be painted with the same brush as certain elected representatives of a democracy. By no means are all that way, and we had our share of liars and crooks when that aphorism was coined... but it seems more prevalent- or perhaps more exposed?

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