Frank Cioffi

  • A Pack of Lies: Towards a Sociology of Lying by J.A. Barnes
    Cambridge, 200 pp, £35.00, June 1994, ISBN 0 521 45376 3

To lie or not to lie, that is the question. But is it, when couched in such global terms, a sensible or well-formed one? Can we really make sense of the justification, not of this or that particular lie or genre of lies, but of our capacity for deception itself? Barnes thinks so; though he admits that ‘attempts to determine the optimal point on the continuum stretching from no lies to ubiquitous lying have so far had only limited success.’ His subtitle – ‘Towards a Sociology of Lying’ – is not auspicious but he has much of interest to say and our worst fears are only intermittently realised. One such occasion is when he reminds us of T.S. Eliot’s view that ‘human beings can tolerate only a limited exposure to reality’, and though he does not urge researchers to get to work on it (‘How much reality do you think human beings can stand – 1. not much. 2. enough. 3. lots?’), nevertheless feels it appropriate to point out that ‘Eliot’s caveat may apply to honesty in the marriage relation but rock-climbers would opt for complete trust and truthfulness.’

Truthfulness, along with every other moral rule, is capable of conflicting with the obligation to benevolence. Can ‘sociological understanding’ help determine when the conflict should be resolved in favour of deceit? Barnes cites exotic cultures in which deceit is approved even by its dupes. And indeed this kind of research may overthrow certain of our assumptions about the universality of disapproval of deceit, but what would show our own judgments mistaken? For example, Asian transvestite prostitutes, because of their delicate bone structure and sparse body hair, are often able to keep clients ignorant of their gender throughout and beyond the transaction which brought them together (as many a GI who took his Rest and Recreation in Tokyo or Bangkok can attest). Though a few of the debriefed GIs may have gotten a retrospective charge out of the revelation, in general their anger at the deception is unlikely to have been mitigated by appreciation of the performance or exculpatory reflections that ‘nobody’s perfect.’ How is sociological research supposed to decide whether this view ought to be superseded by a more indulgent one?

When citing instances of commendable deceit Barnes sometimes confounds deceit with tact. Massage-parlour girls who offer sexual services to their customers but are reticent about this to their boyfriends are described as practising ‘half-hearted deceit’. But since Barnes tells us that the girls don’t believe their lovers are unaware of the services they provide it is difficult to see how this qualifies as deceit at all. Erving Goffman offers us a more accurate way of describing such situations when he distinguishes ‘managing information’ from ‘managing tension’: the blind person who pretends to sight is being deceitful, but the known-to-be-blind who nevertheless attempt to ease interaction with the sighted by appearing to look at the faces of their interlocutors are only producing ‘easeful inattention’ to their disability, not false belief. Thus, to approve this practice is not to condone deceit.

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