Porky-Talky

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 How is sociological research supposed to decide whether this view ought to be superseded by a more indulgent one?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.

Contrast this with a case of genuine but creditable deceit noted by Georg Simmel: ‘the staying away from the knowledge of all that the other does not expressly reveal to us’. Simmel sees knowledge of another’s interiority as a kind of trespass and here the obligation is paradoxically to collude with the desire of the other to deceive by pretending ignorance or obliviousness of what would embarrass or disquiet them. This goes beyond Goffman’s ‘management of tension’ and can legitimately be cited as a specimen of commendable deceit.

Another issue which Barnes thinks research might resolve is ‘whether we should try to avoid deceiving ourselves’. He cites the conclusion of the editors of a symposium on self-deception, that though ‘it promotes short-run psychological health ... Long-run psychological health is thereby constrained.’ He seems unaware of the research which suggests that the mentally healthy are more likely to have a deficient perception of reality than depressives – depressives were better informed about their poor standing in the eyes of others than the healthy-minded and as they became less depressed so they discerned an illusory increase in popularity. This kind of misperception only matters in cases where there is some social cost equivalent to the electoral one of a candidate losing his deposit.

Consider a remark which Pepys confided to his journal: ‘Up and at my chamber all the morning doing business and also reading a little of L’Escolle des filles, which is a mighty lewd book, but yet not amiss for a sober man once to read over to inform him in the villainy of the world.’ Let us put aside the question of how Pepys could have been oblivious of what is comically transparent to us and ask instead just how his rationalisation disadvantaged him. He might have made a fool of himself by sporting the book openly and then proffered his absurd justification when challenged or even have offered to lend it to some pious friend on the same ostensible ground that he was reading it himself.

That he did neither of these things was not a matter of luck. We are later told that, having finished the book, ‘I burned it that it might not be among my books to my shame.’ So Pepys was intermittently aware that the motive he gave himself would not be credited by his wife or heirs. His capacity for self-deception thus gave him the best of both worlds. He was able to enjoy his perusal of pornography without self-reproach and to take prudent steps at the same time to protect his reputation. Can research settle how general this situation is? Montaigne held a robustly indulgent attitude to self-deception: ‘I treat my imagination as gently as I can ... It must be helped and flattered and deceived if possible ... Would you like an example? My imagination says it is good for me that I have the stone.’ He then lists 12 advantages he derives in suffering from gall-stones. ‘By such arguments both strong and weak I try to lull and divert my imagination and salve its wounds ... If things get worse tomorrow, tomorrow we will devise other stratagems.’

According to Samuel Johnson, his friend Savage manifested a comparable ingenuity in distorted ratiocination: ‘Savage ... did not suffer his esteem of himself to depend upon others ... he contented himself with the applause of men of judgment; and was somewhat disposed to exclude all those from the character of men of judgment who did not applaud him.’ Johnson’s struggle to mitigate his disapproval of Savage’s self-deluding accounts of his failure to attain public esteem illustrates our ambivalence on such matters. ‘By arts like these which every man practises in some degree ... Savage was able to live at peace with himself ... But the dangers of this pleasing intoxication must not be concealed ... ’ How is sociological research supposed to determine when the dangers to which Johnson refers outweigh the boon of living at peace with ourselves?

What Barnes has to say about ‘demonstrated incompatibility’ with fact such as justifies the ‘imputation of deceit’, i.e. scientific fraud, is inadequate. He writes that, though we cannot be sure that scientific fraud has become more frequent, ‘the changes that have occurred in the social position of scientists since the days of gentleman scholars make an increase in the incidence of fraud seem highly probable.’ That this is vulgar snobbery seems highly probable. In a study of 26 cases of scientific misconduct over the past decade, roughly two-thirds involved the biomedical sciences. Does Barnes think this is to be accounted for in terms of the humbler social origins of doctors and medical researchers?

That ultimate revelation justifies short-term deception is a time-honoured extenuation. In the early 16th century, Agrippa of Nettesheim asked: ‘Do you think that the sciences could have taken shape and become great if the magicians, alchemists, and astrologers with their deceitful pretences had not preceded them?’ Summerlin, the fraudulent Sloan-Kettering researcher, asked to produce evidence that he had made the momentous discovery of how to circumvent rejection when transplanting tissue from one animal to another, used a felt-tip pen to paint a black area on a white mouse and tried to pass it off as tissue transplanted from a black mouse. It has been urged in his defence that not only was he sincerely convinced of the truth of his discovery but that research along the lines he had indicated may yet vindicate him. How does Barnes think that further sociological research is going to settle the merit of this genre of argument?

There is still another justification of falsehood: the purely consequential. B.F. Skinner thought that falsely labelling a bottle of pills ‘Easy to Swallow’ was justified since it had the effect of making them easier to swallow than they would otherwise have been.

Another defence to charges of mendacity mentioned by Barnes, is that the accusers have misunderstood the conventions of exposition employed by the accused. The Nobel Prize physicist Robert Millikan has been accused of suppressing experiments which did not bear out his theory of the unitary charge on the electron, since his notebooks contain accounts of experiments he did not publish. It has been denied that this was an instance of deception on the grounds that it is well understood by physicists that, given the delicacy of the instrumentation, an experimenter might have many non-tendentious reasons for deeming particular outcomes unworthy of report. The bearing of research on what is problematic about deceit and attendant phenomena like collusion, connivance or relish does not lie where Barnes thinks, in its resolving our dilemmas as to when deceit is to be condemned and when condoned, but in suggesting more plausible or adequate explanatory narratives where existing accounts fail in these respects.

Consider a case where the charge of redundancy so often levelled at social research is unwarranted: Solomon Asch’s seminal experiments on lying from a motive of conformity. When schoolchildren were asked to supply the outcome of several of the most notable experiments in psychology, the one they consistently failed to anticipate was Asch’s finding that subjects would make blatantly false perceptual judgments merely in order not to contradict the unanimous judgments expressed beforehand by the experimenter’s confederates. This study has implications for those explanatory problems which arise when, as Barnes puts it, ‘practitioners cling to ... assumptions despite demonstrated incompatibility with what we observe.’ The problem in such cases is whether we are dealing with hallucinations, delusions, distorted perceptions or simple deceit.

Asch’s results could shed light on the problem posed to psychoanalytic revisionists, by the fact that phenomena they now deny exist were regularly reported over many decades by their predecessors. His surprising demonstration of the strength of the desire to conform would compel us to consider the possibility that classical analysts issued their erroneous reports out of a desire to ingratiate themselves with their fellow Freudians. What experiment could not show is that this is the correct explanation. It might well be that earlier generations of analysts employed in good faith standards of proof which, though unacceptable today, may have been common at the time. Only historical research could decide this issue.

Another response to the discovery that claims widely disseminated and accepted were never warranted if literally construed, is to argue that, reinterpreted in some alternative fashion, they can be justified. A certain segment of the intellectual community will nevertheless continue to feel aggrieved and consider themselves victims of deception. Walter Kaufmann complained that Arnold Toynbee’s admirers only discovered that he was a poet when it was demonstrated what an unreliable historian he was. Or there is Arthur Miller’s account of his response to Lillian Hellman’s Stalinist apologetic: ‘I could hear the wagons drawing up in a circle around the camp and the clanking of rationalisations being piled upon the barricades ... We were not truth seekers but defenders of a beleaguered, crumbling orthodoxy, within which, however, a certain holy truth still lay cradled in whatever sublime confusion ... ’ The extraction of holy truths from discredited dogmas is a standard temptation of epistemic life.

In a review of a book in which Freud’s Wolf Man gave an account of his early life strikingly at variance with Freud’s, and denied that he had ever credited the famous primal scene in which he was supposed to have watched his parents having intercourse doggie fashion, and to which Freud traced his manifold symptoms, D.M. Thomas concluded: ‘though it may well not have been true it is beautiful: which means it has a different, deeper, kind of truth.’

The problems of collusion and self-deception set by phenomena like these suggest that it is not novel sociological perspectives which will resolve them but more densely circumstantial narratives whose detail will settle whether deception was indeed practised or explain why, when it was, condemnation was so unevenly distributed. Why, for example, Cyril Burt has been given such a rough ride and Freud such an easy one.

I don’t want to leave the impression that the theme of epistemic fraud and its legitimation is Barnes’s main preoccupation. He has others: how and when children learn to lie, how and when the species did, why fiction is not generally regarded as mendacious. But he is overconfident as to the clarity of these questions and too reticent as to where their problematically resides. In general, he manifests a deficient sense of the epistemic diversity of the issues he raises. He certainly fails to offer grounds for thinking that the disinclination of ‘the laity ... to wait for sociologists to tell them whether they should condemn or applaud lying’ is a situation that requires rectifying.

Barnes inadvertently raises yet another problem about the ability of research to resolve our dilemmas as to the pros and cons of deceitful practices. ‘Up to half the scientific papers in the United States may be contaminated by data manipulation’: even if sociologists managed to overcome the conceptual and methodological difficulties involved in carrying out large-scale research into the consequences of deception, how would we know whether to believe them?