Paul P. Mealing

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Sunday, 27 April 2008


Trust is the foundation stone for the future success of humanity. A pre-requisite for trust is honesty, and honesty must start with honesty to one’s self. A lot has been written about the evolutionary success that arises from our ability to lie, but I would argue that dishonesty to the self is the greatest poison one can imbibe, and is the starting point for many of the ills faced by individuals and societies alike.

No one is immune to lying – we’ve all lied for various reasons: some virtuous, some not. But it is when we lie to ourselves that we paradoxically lay the groundwork for a greater deception to the outside world. Look at the self-deception of some of the most notorious world leaders, who surround themselves with acolytes, so they can convince the wider world of the virtue of their actions.

When I was very young, 6 or 7 (50 years ago now), I learned my first lesson about lying that I can still remember. I was in a school playground when someone close by ended up with a bleeding nose – to this day I’ve no idea what actually happened. Naturally, a teacher was called, and she asked, ‘What happened?’ A girl nearby pointed at me and said, ‘He hit him.’ I was taken to the Head Mistress, who was a formidable woman. In those days, children were caned for less, though I had never been caned up to that point in my schooling. At that age, when I arrived home from school, my father sometimes asked me, ‘Did you get the cane today?’ It was always very important to me to be able to say ‘no’, as I hated to think of the inquisition that would have followed if I’d ever said ‘yes’.

Back to the Head Mistress; I remember our encounter well. The school classrooms were elevated with a verandah, and we sat outside looking down at the courtyard, which was effectively deserted – the playground, where the incident had occurred, was out of sight. Her first question may have been: ‘Why did you hit him?’ or it may have been: ‘Tell me what happened.’ It doesn’t really matter what she actually said, because the important thing was that I realised straightaway that the truth would be perceived as a lie. I had to tell her something that she would believe, so I told her a story that went something like this: ‘We were both running and I ran into him.’ Her response was something like: ‘That’s interesting, I wasn’t told you were running. You’re not supposed to run.’ I knew then, possibly by the tone of her voice, that I had got away with it.

What’s most incredible about this entire episode is that it’s so indelibly burned into my brain. I learned a very valuable lesson at a very early age: it’s easier to tell a lie that is wanted to be heard than the truth that is not. Politicians, all over the world, practice this every day, some more successfully than others. For example, if soldiers commit a massacre, the powers-that-be can often deny it with extraordinary success; for the very simple reason that ordinary people would much prefer to ‘know’ that the massacre never happened than to ‘know’ the truth. (Hugh Mackay, in his excellent book, Right & Wrong; how to decide for yourself, refers to this as 'telling people the lies they want to hear'.)

A worldwide survey was done sometime in the last decade on 'trust', within various societies, and it revealed a remarkable correlation. (I don’t know who commissioned it; I read about it in New Scientist.) They found that the degree of trust between individuals in business transactions was directly dependent on the degree of trust they had in their government. So trust starts at the top, which is why I opened this essay with the sentence I chose. Trust starts with world leaders, and the more powerful they are, the more important it is.

A very good barometer of the health of a democracy is its media. By this criterion, America is one of the healthiest democracies in the world. We all take pot shots at America, including me, but most of the criticism, and all the ammunition for the criticisms that I level at America, come from the American press themselves. The other emerging power in the 21st Century, China, and the re-emerging power, Russia, have quite a different view on what criticisms they tolerate, both internally and externally. In Russia, journalists have been assassinated, and China is 'the world's leading jailer of journalists' according to CPJ (Committee to Protect Journalists).

Without trust, there can be no negotiations, no security and no creativity for individuals; the world will be forced to conform to a parody of democracy, a fa├žade and ultimately a farce. Whatever the political or economical outcomes of the 21st Century, there will be enormous pressure on humanity worldwide. Trust, on a global scale, will be requisite for a stable and sustainable future. It is only because of the media that debates can take place between groups and with an informed public. It is the role of the media to keep politicians honest, not only to themselves, but also to the rest of us. It is when politicians usurp this role that trust disappears. Everywhere.

Footnote: I wrote this almost immediately after I saw the U2 3D concert in a cinema. I came out of the theatre with the first sentence already in my head. So I had to write it down, and the rest just followed.

Clive James made the point in an interview last year, that democracy is not the norm, it's the exception; in the West, we take democracy for granted.

This issue is complementary to issues I discuss, in a different context, in my post entitled Human Nature (Nov. 07).

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