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Stocker: Stop telling ‘white lies’

Alexi Stocker, Columnist

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“Honesty,” Benjamin Franklin once said, “is the best policy.” American author Mark Twain amended this quotation decades later, writing, “Honesty is the best policy — when there is money in it.” A contemporary rendition of this sentiment could probably best be expressed, “Honesty is the best policy — when it suits my short-term ends.” Dishonesty has become ubiquitous in our society; our politicians lie, our professional athletes lie and news anchors lie, too.

We all know that lying, whether about having an extramarital affair, coming under fire in Iraq or receiving mysterious campaign contributions, is wrong. The truth gets out, and the consequences of lying are often worse than if we had just been forthright in the first place. Just ask President Bill Clinton or professional golfer Tiger Woods. Nonetheless, people keep on lying. We deride the biggest liars — take “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz, for example — yet the lies keep flowing forth, an unstoppable and seemingly endless stream of falsehoods, fabrications, distortions and outright dishonesties.

Our society’s penchant for lying begins, I believe, with our acceptance and outright promotion of “white lies.” Dictionary.com defines a white lie as “a minor, polite, or harmless lie; fib.” The definition affixed to white lies identifies a serious problem in our society’s approach to the truth; dishonesty is completely acceptable if we can rationalize it. Lies can be harmless if they’re trivial or unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Lies are good if they allow us to avoid offending somebody.

White lies, no matter what we’re raised to believe, do little to prevent hurt feelings or avoid conflict. Children know, for example, that appearances matter in our society. They know, despite adults’ insistence that everybody is beautiful, some people are more attractive than others.

Studies show that beauty matters. Attractiveness brings with it advantages, from greater likeability to easier success in politics and business.

Ultimately, white lies do more harm than good. Telling unattractive friends and family members they’re handsome or beautiful doesn’t help them. Telling friends their performances were great when they stunk, their papers are brilliant when they’re not or their comments in class were “on point” when they just filled up dead air is a dangerous and destructive path. Lying to each other prevents critical reflection and spurs distrust and mutual suspicion.

Honesty actually is the best policy. Being forthright about differences in physical attractiveness enables us to emphasize the fact that, although appearances do matter in our society, beauty does not define our worth. Being honest about appearances enables us to say something like, “Yes, you are an objectively unattractive man, and I love you for your intelligence, kindness, ingenuity, humor and adventurous spirit.” Honesty of that sort enables us to move above our society’s overvaluation of physical appearances. Lying reinforces the importance of good looks and leaves those of us with lesser natural endowments feeling devalued.

Honesty also helps us grow through critical reflection. I have played trombone since I was in fourth grade. Those first three years I was awful; I was truly and unequivocally terrible at playing trombone. Yet, after each performance, family members would eagerly tell me how well I’d done. It took me hearing a recording of myself playing to realize just how bad I was. Armed with that knowledge, I set out to improve, and I did. Looking back, I would have greatly appreciated honesty up front. To this day, I demand honesty from my peers on my writing and rhetorical arguing skills. Little white lies do nothing to help our peers; honest feedback is absolutely necessary for moving forward and developing our skills in any and all performance and professional fields.

More importantly, people know when they’re being lied to. Even if we initially believe dishonest, albeit well-intentioned, feedback, reality eventually comes swooping in, revealing our friends’ and families’ white lies. I honestly prefer to hear I’m bad at something — trombone, tennis, what have you — from friends or family than to go into an audition or tryout swelled with false confidence, only to be let down. Not only does our dishonesty hurt our friends, it also leaves them feeling deceived.

Going forward, let’s all try to live by Franklin’s words. Honesty really is the best policy, both for ourselves and for those we value most.

Alexi Stocker is a Weinberg senior. He can be contacted at alexistocker2016@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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