Let’s be clear before we begin, on our main definitions. I always think of the word ‘ignoble’ as meaning dishonest or not honorable, but it has a second meaning too. That specific adjective is one suggesting a humble origin, or a basic quality, and I suppose when we do a little bit of philosophising about lies and deception, both definitions probably ring true.
I’m prompted into this by conversations I’ve had recently with a few of my students (and parents). For us over here in the British Isles, ’tis the season of Options, whereby we must extoll the virtues of our chosen teaching subject for the delight and delectation of the masses. To GCSE, or not to GCSE (or A-level), that is indeed the question. We are asked ad infinitum “Do you think my son oblique daughter can do this course?” “What grade do you think they’ll get?” and so on. We of course, seek to encourage as many as possible to opt in. We love our subject. We think it is the most important subject there is. Without it, how can anybody possible function? Well truth is, they’ll of course get by fine without it in reality (though they may struggle at pub quizzes), but with it, you’ll peel back so many layers of understanding of how the world works you would think you were blind beforehand. So of course, for those students we embellish carefully and hedge our responses. On the other hand, where we see a student coming forwards who will definitely struggle with the requirements of the course, we employ a different form of truth telling, by highlighting difficult tasks and expectations and allow the implications of that to sink in. We are not lying, but are we slightly deceiving both?
Another seemingly straight forward question “Will you be teaching the course next year? How to answer this one folks? There is a choice of four possible teachers, including myself, so of course I give the standard (usually truthful) answer, that we simply don’t know, it depends on the timetables and we won’t know that till June. But the hidden lie, the absent truth, is that of course I won’t be here for the next academic year, (as we are taking our year or two out before Tiddler needs to start school herself) so it couldn’t possible be me. I will be off on a (hopeful) jolly. Why don’t I simply say that? I haven’t officially handed in my notice yet, and certainly most staff and students are not aware of me going, and I don’t really want to get into that conversation just yet. Of course, the students may be asking with the vain hope I won’t be teaching them and they can breathe a sigh of relief that they won’t get Miss Thrifter again, but I like to retain a little flicker of smugness that they might consider choosing the subject if they think they might get me again. We all like to be liked, at the end of the day.
According to the BBC ethics team ‘lying is an unavoidable part of human nature’. Back to our second definition then, a basic quality. The complicated nature of deception, lies and falsehoods are brilliantly summed up here, to get your brain into gear on this theme, and indicates how complicated we can make this. We can lie about something, which turns out later to be true. Our Homo sapien brains means we can manipulate our use of language to be stating a literal truth, while actually delivering a lie. We lie to protect other people’s feelings. Worse still, we happily attempt to lie to ourselves fairly often, even when we clearly don’t need a lie detector to work out that yes, it was me that ate that whole packet of maltesers all by myself. Should we therefore consider not the lie itself as a bad thing, but rather the underlying intention, and the potential consequences as the determining factors.
Tiddler of course doesn’t really know how to lie yet. We play a hide and seek game where she shouts out where she is hiding as soon as we start to look for her. We play a blindfolded guess the object game too. She is pretty good at feeling the object in her hands and guessing it from its shape or texture, but when she wants to blindfold us and give us an unseen item to work out, she invariable tells us exactly what it is as soon as she hands it over. I’m pretty good now at pretending I have absolutely no idea what is is and go through a good three of four guesses before I say the thing she has just told me. Perhaps she simply thinks I’m a bit rubbish at the game and need a clue. Poor Mama.
Clearly at some stage soon, she will start to lie. She already tells us when Mister Crocodile needs to go to hospital (usually as she has attempted to cut it’s leg off with a plastic saw from her ever expanding toolbox), or makes me cups of tea from swimming pool water, so she is capable of imagining, and surely that is the actual noble art of lying. Sir Ken Robinson, a big cheese in childhood development, states that ‘imagination is the source of all human achievement’. It allows cognitive development, critical thinking, language progression, innovation and much more that this, the ability to lie. Is this indeed a purely human trait? We like to think we are the superior species in this sort of thing, but have a little look at this article if you are under the misapprehension that animals don’t get up to a little bit of ‘creative truth telling’ when it suits them.
Fundamentally then, without the ability to lie, we are without the imagination of an ‘alternative’ reality, and that might limit us in terms our aspirations, our relationships, and our happiness. Stick with the adage ‘do no harm’ and hopefully it will all work out fine. Even Santa has a part to play in all this, and I’m pretty sure he was a saint.