Why We Lie

OK. This has taken weeks. I’ve been playing it a little close to my vest since I started getting all these Emerson prompts, and they started messing with my head. This one is just going to have to do.

Susannah Conway wrote a challenging post a couple of weeks ago, asking of her fellow bloggers the following question: Can we just be honest? (To start with my honesty, I started writing this in response the day I read it, and it has taken me this long to finish it.)

Too much sunshine-and-roses! Going out and playing in the rain. Taking amusement from your child’s encounter with the mud. And not enough truth… not enough about how things are hard, and sometimes life sucks and you take to bed for four days after an election. (It wasn’t quite that bad, but you might have noticed a certain despondency to my tone, eh?) And even though she wasn’t talking to me, she has a truth there I feel must be addressed.

It happens that the very same day I got a note from a friend regarding truth in blogging, and they caused me to pull out my copy of “They Have a Word For It,” Howard Rheingold’s collection of untranslatable words/concepts/ (1)

From the Kiriwina tribe in New Guinea, he offers us a sequence of concepts related to accepted lying for the purposes of maintaining social cohesion. (2) It starts with mokita, which is a ‘truth that everybody knows  but nobody speaks’. He describes its use thus: “There are times when mokita helps shield people from truths they would rather not face, and there are times when it is simply an act of kindness to recognize it.” But then he points out that if you name it, you become obliged to do something about it, so it is part of social stability to continue to pretend that we don’t know.

The problem is that each of us seems to know some things, but because they are not spoken, we only suspect that other people know them too. In any individual interaction, we don’t know what is really going on, so we continue to pretend. We (I am speaking now to the class of women who “have it all”) don’t say, “Actually, sometimes I would like to chuck it all and move to Tahiti and paint like Gaugin.” We don’t say, “This stuff that I’m doing here, it doesn’t really work. I don’t want to colour my hair with another stripe to appear kicky and young. I want to go *do* something kicky and young.” (3) We don’t talk about sex, or money, or despair, or frustration, or our abandoned hopes and dreams, or our nagging suspicion that life may be meaningless, or how boring it can be to stay home and entertain the repetitive demands of children all day long after a professional career that was interesting and used a large capacity of our skills. Shh… If we said anything, we would have to do something about it.

Not to mention that if you say any of those things in a really public forum you’ll get this in the comments: “If you didn’t want children, you shouldn’t have had them.” Or, even better, “Oh, my god you’re so selfish. I feel sorry for your children. Someone who would really love them should take them from you.” Your mental health will be treated as a sign of failure and weakness, and the fact that you mention your ex-job will be called a sign of your clueless privilege… hmm. Let’s see… why don’t we tell the truth? Fear, anyone?

The next concept after mokita is biga peula, which are “potentially disruptive unredeemable true statements”. (literal translation “hard words”) These can’t be unsaid, and can “reorder the reality of individuals and entire social groups by forcing them to pay attention to that which is commonly ignored.” This is the task of speaking mokita, which is highly discouraged, and in fact is unforgivable.

Un-say “Gay”: A speaking of Biga Peula

Sometime in the past, you may have had a well-dressed uncle who had the same roommate for over 20 years. It may have been whispered about behind closed doors, and suspected, but nobody said anything. Then in 1969 came Stonewall… and the walls started to crumble. “Hey, look. There are gay people in the world.” To this day, 42 years later, a significant fraction of the population is still trying to figure out how to get that truth unsaid. But you can’t hide it. There are gay people in the world.

Make no mistake: speaking the truth is not without cost. You may be ostracized, mocked, or neglected. Your family may tell you that God will cast you out from his love. There are people who are so attached to their reality that they will kill you rather than let you exist as a challenge to it. These are real risks and they must be considered. Even the reality of nasty comments on the internet can drain your ability to keep speaking your truth, as Her Bad Mother happened to be writing about the week I started this.

But most of us, for most truths, the risk is the loss of relationships that you value. Although the world is large, and our mobility is unprecedented, most of us still live in the functional equivalent of villages. We see the same people at one party after another, go to work with the same group year after year, and even if we want to change jobs, we probably will find that those past social connections are key to moving to something new. We don’t want our children to bear the weight of our speaking, so we remain silent in public, perhaps whispering our fears and insights only to our dearest companions in the quiet of a 3 a.m. living room. Even the fact that I posted pictures of my messy closet gave me a moment’s pause…  because really? Maybe it is just me (even though I know it’s not.)

We Can’t Do it One By One

As long as it’s one of us at a time, it remains dangerous. Person by person, we are at risk when we speak hard truths about what we are like. Going so far as to wear your hair long as a man can be a choice that marks you, sets you aside, and makes you ineligible for public office. I had a moment last night when I could picture us in a giant musical work, a tiny line in the whole, each carrying some thread of music. As long as we whisper, sing in the shower, or hold our note silent for years on end, nobody else who has another piece of the same song can find us. And each of us is less safe as a result, wanderers trying to find a tribe, storytellers with no audience, singers without harmony

We lie because we hope it will keep us safe as individuals. But truth telling: that is the path to something more.


  1. I have a love of words, and since I started studying Tibetan Buddhism and yoga, I have become particularly enamored of words which simply don’t translate. Tibetan and Sanskrit are languages that reflect a completely different ordering of the world, and translations can be remarkably different. Frankly, much of western Buddhism may be completely misdirected based on the translation of Dukkha as ‘suffering’ rather than ‘discomfort’. So I have heard. On a related note, I also have on my shelf a book of alternative translations of Jesus’ teachings from the Aramaic directly to English… this entirely changes the tone of much of them. But, I digress.
  2.  There is an 11-page bibliography at the back of the book for anybody who wants to explore the precise nature of this explanation. The Kiriwina are part of the Trobriand Islanders, and I know that there is some doubt about the validity of some of the anthropological work done with those tribes.
  3. I just went to my kids’ spring concert, and they had a Kiss drum solo, and it was fabulous, but none of the other parents were dancing in the aisles… and I found myself thinking, “Oh, COME ON! Weren’t you a teenager in the ’80’s and 90’s? What, is this all beneath you now??? Wouldn’t you go to a KISS concert if you had the opportunity?” But no, they all sat there quietly, clapped politely at the end, and we continued on our (appropriate, adult) merry ways.
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6 thoughts on “Why We Lie

  1. This has been something I’ve been kind of thinking about as I feel like people thing I’m a weirdo because I have weird opinions and I can’t keep them to myself. As far as blogging I do enjoy an “honest” post every now and then as it does make me feel like I’m not the only one, but I’ve found myself unsubscribing to blogs that become too down because its just a bit depressing.

    Now I want to know about words in other languages that can’t be translated. What is the book with jesus’s teachings? and did you really dance in the aisle?

    • Let’s see… Blessings of the Cosmos (and Prayers of the Cosmos) are the translations of Jesus’ teaching directly from Aramaic (I have been led to believe). I danced at the back of the room, mostly. I had the excuse of a rangy 4-year-old. But I wish I just had the confidence to dance in the aisle without having to have that excuse.

      I understand about the way in which a too-depressing set of posts can get a person down. I tend to read the ones that sound like a person having a human life with normal problems, or even moments of abnormal problems… but not the troubled life with occasional flashes of OK-ness. Not in general. I also shy away from most fiction that includes any of the following words and phrases in the description: heartwarming, epic struggle, coming-of-age, or endurance of the human spirit. It doesn’t tend to leave me much fiction. But there’s LOTS of diversity in the non-fiction section. Oooh, there’s a whole new post there.

  2. On a tangent,
    I’m not sure that Roget et al did the English language any favours by inventing/popularizing the thesaurus ( thesaurus.com does list suffering as a synonym of discomfort.) It’s a great tool, if used well, but often leads to mutilation of meaning on a small scale, and contributes to the erosion of fine distinctions between words – though it’s obviously not the only factor..

    Not much to add to the main topic, though.

    • Aha. Now, I use the thesaurus only to prompt myself if I have hit close to, but not quite, the meaning I’m looking for. I don’t just use it to find a fancier way of saying the same thing. In fact, I’m a fan of the short-sharp approach, but my vocabulary and pickiness about precision in language are my undoing. At least I cut most of my adjectives. Or at least, some of my adjectives. I should auto-correct “very” to “”. 🙂

  3. Appalled that anyone would say you don’t love your children or that they should be taken away from you just because there’s more to you than a baby-tending robot, and you’re honest about it. Whoa.

    Closer to home than New Guinea, the Mi’kmaq language is based on concepts, and much of it is untranslatable, at least easily. That doesn’t stop it from having some of the most expressive words I’ve ever encountered.

    I’ve been told that I am “religiously honest”, and that being so does not make one popular. Oh, well.

    • I’ve been thinking about taking some Mi’kmaq studies courses (since they’re right there).
      (I was never a baby-tending robot. Somewhere there’s a picture of me nursing my daughter while reading an academic paper and taking notes on a legal pad next to her head on the nursing pillow. And my first son was 18 months old before I could change his diaper without retching. But I certainly have seen comments like that on blogs and articles all over the place. The internet is not a hotbed of civil discourse.)

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