Li: An Epidemic of Dishonesty

by Lucy Li | 10/25/16 12:15am

There are so many different ways to lie. We may convey false information, withhold the truth or tell white lies, saying what we want people to hear. Other times, we only tell half the story, convolute the story or make a new one. When it comes to telling the truth, however, there’s only one way to do it, and that is to express what you want and what you mean as accurately as your words and body language allow you to.

Language is an imperfect instrument of self-expression evident in those moments when words don’t quite roll off the tongue, or when a simple facial expression gets your point across better than a sentence can. There are not enough words to express exactly what we feel. No experience will ever mirror another and no feeling will ever feel the same the second time around; the human range of emotion is too expansive to categorize into words. However, we make do, and we try to express what we feel by choosing our words with as much accuracy as we can.

As members of a community, it’s impossible to be completely honest all the time. Empathy teaches us to sand down the edges of our words to not hurt other peoples’ feelings. Our innate need to belong drives us to speak in a way that fits the occasion, and we choose our words carefully to put up a front. It is for this reason that our most genuine thoughts rarely ever take form as tangible words, and are silently lost within our own mental monologue.

Considering the limitations of language, it amazes me how often people still intentionally say what they don’t mean. There are already so many opportunies for honest words to be misinterpreted. By deliberately saying what we don’t mean, we are wasting a uniquely human gift. If we’re lucky, our lies sometimes end up dissipating into the void; most of the time, though, they become weapons. And when these weapons are put to use, they have the power to be hurtful.

The world we live in encourages and perpetuates dishonesty. Lying has infiltrated the very essence of our culture. Not saying what we mean has become so normalized that I see real reactions of surprise and discomfort when someone is too genuine or actually bold enough to acknowledge an elephant in the room. Not saying what we mean perpetuates the lack of conversation around pervasive social issues, including sexual violence, mental illness and racism. Not being honest about the problem fuels the very issue that we claim to abhor. It is the ultimate form of apathy.

Apathy has become our generation’s medication for fear, to the point where we give our words as little meaning as possible to escape commitment and manage our insecurities. Empty phrases, like “Let’s hang out soon,” have become normalized. It has become too normal to take someone’s words with a grain of salt. We completely undermine the value of language by refusing to acknowledge the weight and commitment that words have. Words, no matter how they are said and with whatever intentions, don’t mean anything unless your actions follow through.

I called my dad recently to vent about my frustration and anger over this epidemic of dishonesty, and he told me, “Think about it like this. People who don’t say what they mean have to remember everything they ever said because they might have to defend it someday. But they can’t possibly remember everything they say, and eventually others will realize what kind of people they are.” I don’t believe that people say what they don’t mean to be malicious; if anything, they do it with the best of intentions. However, the side effects of those words we choose based on what we think other people want to hear can potentially be disastrous. We don’t know what other people want, so it’s best to say what we mean and let the other person decide for themselves what they want.

We are all guilty of perpetuating this epidemic of dishonesty because we are all human. My dad, having decades more experience than me with human interaction, reminded me that people will be people. “Forgive others, and forgive yourself. Forgive yourself for seeing the good in people, and don’t stop being yourself just because other people might not be like you.”

No one will ever tell the truth all the time, but that does not mean that it isn’t worth it to start changing the dialogue. Every person who decides that lying isn’t worth it is an activist in this movement for honesty and speaking with intention.