When was the last time you told a lie? Honestly, think about it. Perhaps you told a lie without even thinking you were lying, and with no feeling of guilt. It would not be entirely surprising.
Not telling the truth is so ingrained in our national life, and such a popular, everyday expedient for achieving our goals, that it is easier than ever to lie with no conscious sensation of doing it.
Lying is a huge concept, of course, ranging from the mundane to the deeply manipulative. As well as political spin in the “post-truth” era, there is the lying we all do, from “I’ll be there in 10 minutes”, or lying by omission – not saying you won’t be there in 10 minutes – to the people-pleasing gossiping we do every day, insisting to one friend we agree with them, then bitching behind their back to another friend that really they are quite wrong.
We bear false witness. We do it all the time, usually in the belief that we either have no choice or are making things better by doing so.
There are also the sorts of lies which some will say the system encourages. I have just had to pull out of the sale of my flat to a twentysomething who insisted they were a cash buyer. They negotiated a much reduced price on this basis, only for me to open the door a few weeks later to a surveyor from a building society who was arranging their mortgage. Apparently, this happens all the time.
When I expressed shock, both the buyer and my estate agent were nonplussed: “What difference does it make so long as you get the money?”
I pointed out the difference was that I no longer trusted them. The transaction limped on for a few months but eventually I pulled the plug.
The Left will blame the unfairness of the property ladder. I blame the death of sin. I was brought up to believe in my capacity to do right or wrong. Nowadays, children are raised to believe that all their behaviours are valid, because they constitute self-expression.
Restraint has gone out of the window, and with it any notion that we should refrain from doing something that is wrong, but not illegal.
The end of fire and brimstone in Western culture, the literal “fear of God” we had instilled into us as kids only a generation ago, while laudable in some ways, means that children now respect the law, but not necessarily the right thing, morally speaking.
I am aware that this is a bleak, postmodern vision I’m painting, but what if we are getting to a position where most people are not stealing, raping, assaulting or murdering each other chiefly because those things are illegal?
They will be increasingly prepared to lie, blaspheme, commit adultery, covet what other people have and treat their elders with disrespect because those things are not illegal, and, aside from fraud and perjury in court, would seem to have no penalty.
One could argue that Britain would be an infinitely better place if the Ten Commandments were enshrined in law. Of course, the first four would have to be set aside, lest we start a civil war between religious groups. “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make idols. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” All of that is too near the bone of who, exactly, you think God is for it to be useful in our multicultural society.
It might be interesting to try to enforce one and two in so far as they pertained to the cult of celebrity. If we prevented young people from worshipping the Kardashians, for example, it might do a lot for their personal development.
However, from five onwards, we might make a go of enforcing “Honour your father and your mother. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour. You shall not covet.”
Imagine the end of lying. You can’t. But you can imagine a situation whereby lying became sufficiently frowned upon by the law for people to at least try to stop doing it. Imagine if people were discouraged from randomly eyeing up each other’s wealth and declaring publicly that they deserved it more than the other person. Would it mean the end of class warfare, the end of the politics of envy?
We could make this country great again if people accepted that the only route to material wealth was to stop putting their energy into devising ways to take it from others and rather to go out and earn it for themselves. Either that, or be happy without it. I feel like I am painting a picture of Utopia now.
Melissa Kite is a journalist and author