From eDeliberation Blog, organized with Colin Rule
I’d wager we’ve all had a friend or family member share one of their new creations with us (maybe a poem, or an article, or a intending-to-be-funny youtube video) and ask, excitedly, “What do you think?” — triggering a series of connected realizations on our end: a) this is not very good, b) what will be achieved by me telling them that this is not very good? c) I want to be a good friend… so our brain wisely instructs us to say, “That’s great. Well done.”
The famous white lie. We’re all committed to the truth in the abstract. It goes all the way back to elementary school classes on George Washington and the cherry tree. We’re all quite clear on the core message: truth is good, falsehood is evil. But, that said… there are times when we’re willing to bend that commitment just a little bit to keep things running smoothly. As the Jewish sages put it long ago, Mutar le-shanot mipnei ha-shalom: “It is permitted to tell an untruth (literally, “to change” the facts) for the sake of peace.” This sentiment can be found throughout history, across all religions and cultures. Everybody lies a little bit, and that’s OK.
But there’s a space where white lies begin to shade into gray. I recall when I worked in a big Silicon Valley tech company that co-workers would sometimes present their grand strategy to achieve some breakthrough or another, and everyone in the meeting would say, “Wow, great work — this is going to be a big success!” and then afterward in the hallway say quietly to each other, “That is never going to work.” Some of my international colleagues told me they felt that this behavior was dishonest. Their feeling was: if you didn’t think it was going to work, the most loyal thing to do is to step up and provide the feedback in an honest and straightforward way. Yes, it may not be feedback the presenter wants to hear, but it’s better than pretending to be in agreement but secretly disagreeing. Those of us who kept our misgivings to ourselves might have been just trying to keep the peace (and this does seem to be a fairly typical American behavior) but we might have been creating more problems over the long run.
Then there’s the question of who it’s OK to lie to. Part of in-group/out-group behavior is related to the question of truth: who is entitled to it, and who it’s okay to mislead. Speaking the truth to someone builds trust. Over time that person learns they can rely on what you say, because experience has proven that you are an honest person who doesn’t lie. But if you don’t care about building trust with someone, or even if you feel hostile toward them, then you may be more prone to lie in order to manipulate them into doing what you want them to do. This behavior obviously creates a race to the bottom, because then they may be more prone to lie to you in retaliation — and trust goes out the window.
Which explains the surge of accusations about lying in our very divided political climate leading up to the mid-term elections next week. Suddenly accusations about dishonesty fill the news headlines every day. Liberals accuse conservatives of lying, so in response, conservatives accuse liberals of the same thing. Each side then says to their compatriots, “See? You can’t trust anything they say.” (Of course, the corollary to that assertion is, “So you should only trust me and what I tell you.”) Accusing the other side of being a liar has a long tradition in politics. History is littered with statements from leaders that one or another of their opponents is a liar, going back to Seneca’s Philosophy of Deception in Ancient Rome.
Over time this dynamic has taken on a cultural tone as well. Those trying to gin-up hate or anger against a group will often accuse a whole race or religion of being liars. Christians have long been accused of perpetrating “pious frauds” to advance their belief. The anti-Semitic assertion that Jews are liars stretches back to Luther in 1543. Those with anti-Muslim bias often intentionally misinterpret the concept of Taqiya (which is a “precautionary dissimulation or denial of religious belief and practice in the face of persecution”) as permission for Muslims to lie to non-believers about everything. These techniques aim to marginalize and “other” groups so as to build loyalty to an “in-group,” and they have been depressingly effective throughout human history.
The reality is, we all lie, on some level. And the whiteness of any particular lie may very much be in the eye of the beholder. This is how attribution error works: I lie because I have to in order to achieve a noble purpose, but you lie because you’re a bad person with evil intent. Leaders may lie to their followers because (a la Seneca) they believe the lying will improve their followers’ well being, and research shows that those followers may not even mind being lied to. This ends-justify-the-means orientation can enable people to rationalize some pretty extreme behavior. But the essential truth is that calling out the lies of your opponents may just reinforce the in-group/out-group dynamic the liar was originally intending to underscore.
I’ve written before on this blog about lies and the truth. One enemy of dishonesty is time, because as Shakespeare put it in The Merchant of Venice, “…at the length truth will out.” The challenge is for us to wait for the facts to catch up to the lies, without allowing (as Hannah Arendt described it) “the credibility gap [to stretch] into an abyss.” Arendt concludes: “…let us remember that the lie did not creep into politics by some accident of human sinfulness. Moral outrage, for this reason alone, is not likely to make it disappear.”
Colin Rule is Vice President for Online Dispute Resolution at Tyler Technologies. Tyler acquired Modria.com, an ODR provider Colin co-founded, in 2017. From 2003 to 2011 Colin was Director of Online Dispute Resolution for eBay and PayPal. He has worked in the dispute resolution field for more than 25 years as a mediator, trainer, and consultant. He is currently Co-Chair of the Advisory Board of the National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution at UMass-Amherst and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Gould Center for Conflict Resolution at Stanford Law School.
Colin co-founded Online Resolution, one of the first online dispute resolution (ODR) providers, in 1999 and served as its CEO (2000) and President. In 2002 Colin co-founded the Online Public Disputes Project (now eDeliberation.com) which applies ODR to multiparty, public disputes. Previously, Colin was General Manager of Mediate.com, the largest online resource for the dispute resolution field. Colin also worked for several years with the National Institute for Dispute Resolution (now ACR) in Washington, D.C. and the Consensus Building Institute in Cambridge, MA.
Colin has presented and trained throughout Europe and North America for organizations including the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, the Department of State, the International Chamber of Commerce, and the CPR Institute for Dispute Resolution. He has also lectured and taught at UMass-Amherst, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Pepperdine, Southern Methodist University, and Santa Clara University.
Colin is the author of Online Dispute Resolution for Business, published by Jossey-Bass in September 2002, and The New Handshake: Online Dispute Resolution and the Future of Consumer Protection, published by the ABA in 2017. He has contributed more than 50 articles to prestigious ADR publications such as Consensus, The Fourth R, ACResolution Magazine, and Peace Review. He serves on the boards of the Consensus Building Institute and the PeaceTech Lab at the United States Institute of Peace. He holds a Master’s degree from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in conflict resolution and technology, a graduate certificate in dispute resolution from UMass-Boston, a B.A. from Haverford College, and he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Eritrea from 1995-1997.