A study in truth and adjacent concepts
If you dedicated your life to comfort and lying, not only would you hate to read the below. You won’t be able to follow it. It’s hard to think when all absolutes smooth into relatives, facts into opinions, and yes into maybe.
I’m double-Dutch. Dutch culture greatly prioritizes honesty and frankness, just like Mormon tradition (I hear). And I come from a family where truth goes before anything. So, what did I learn (over decades) about lying?
I once started reading a book on truth and honesty. Unfortunately, it became very complicated very quickly. It was like the author jumped through so many hoops that I got the impression that he only knew about truth theoretically. Though below you’ll see that there are many aspects involved in integrity and truthfulness, I don’t think that it’s anything complicated or convoluted. As I hope to show.
One more word as introduction. I think that truth is very important. Not because falsehood is immoral (morality is important too), but because falsehood impedes our functioning. When we’re not very strict in being honest, our friends and students may also not be. And when we’re surrounded by fakes and falses, we will be more scared and lonelier. And our memory will be overburdened with ‘variations on the truth.’ And it’s difficult to be clever and creative when the truth is not safe with us. (Accomplished liars often steal others’ ideas to seem original and smart.)
My first aim is to give an analysis of the function and characteristics of Truth as it works in Arab culture, seen from a Western perspective.
I will try to steer clear of both racism and political correctness.
I will leave out politicians since I think that the vast majority spends 90% of the time lying and 10% of the time being confused. I assume that is not less with Arab politicians than with their Western counterparts. Especially, when the former work in autocracies and the latter in democracies.
In my treatment of the subject, I’m not implying that every person with an Arab background goes by the Arab model of what is truth. Some may have a Western method or both systems, depending on the situation. Likely, the Arab World is neither a monolithic block. So many cultures are part of it.
There will be no need to choose which tradition of handling the concept of truth is the best. Each of the two has its own advantages. I’ll explain.
To say that all Arabs are liars is racist. But to say that Arabs have the same outlook on Truth as Westerners is also racist. As you will see.
In the Western tradition, Truth is in accordance with the facts. Someone who denies the facts knowingly is a liar. But that is not an objective norm. Rather, it is given by a certain tradition of how to look at the world.
In Arab culture, Truth is what you think deserves to be seen as the highest reflection of reality. A couple of examples may explain a lot.
You always pay, no?
In the pharmacy, I’m helped by the person I know there the longest. She is Muslima, clearly. Her head covering is much bigger than that of a religious Jewish woman. She gives me what I ask and I inquire about the price. Now, she could have said: “You stupid, you know that you pay nothing to the health fund, so they will hardly give you a discount.” Instead, she says: “You always pay, no?” Meaning: It’s like always for you. To tell me the truth would have been disrespectful to an elderly person. (In Israel, clerks have no regard for you as a customer but as an elderly person they might.)
The cables are wet
From her accent, I hear that the call center agent I’m talking to is Arab. Why does it take so long to repair the broken cable outside so that I have Internet again? She answers that “the cables are wet from the rain (it suddenly rained that afternoon). When they are wet, the workers can’t work with them.” I didn’t believe her. But I understood that she wanted to tell me something to satisfy me. (She didn’t, as variations of the truth don’t charm the Dutch but she can’t know that.) After inquiring if she’s Muslim (she could be Christian), I wished her a happy upcoming Ramadan.
The Jews are foreign invaders
When someone says that Jews are foreign invaders and the Arab Palestinians are the natives, that holds at least a bit of a distortion. I remember in 1968, just after the Six-Day War, in Jerusalem, I met a Muslim student from Cairo. He was more than five years older than me. I was 15. So, I was a bit intimidated. He told me that Jews had no business being in Palestine. They had never been there. I asked him if he had heard about Jesus. Sure. He lived here, no? Yes. Well, we’re accused of having killed him. We were here really. He was stunned.
But now, I know I misunderstood him. He meant to give support to his sympathy for the Arab cause. He didn’t try to be factual. Facts had nothing to do with it. When he likes enough Jews, he’ll tell you that both Arabs and Jews belong here. It has to do with his opinion, not with historical facts.
The Temple Mount is ours
So, when a Muslim tells Jews that the Temple Mount is theirs and not ours, he means that he dislikes the Jews. It has nothing to do with archeology or history. He may try to come with ‘alternative facts’ and deny real findings, not because he’s a liar — sorry for the word — but because he’s defending ‘his’ Nation and Cause. Give him respect, and there may be something to talk about. Give him fact, and you just embarked on an unwinnable battle.
This has nothing to do with facts or lies. This has to do with the narrative that the Land is ours. Sly politicians, trained in Western diplomacy, will insist on bulldozing archeological findings from the Mount. But fact-finding has nothing to do with the narrative. Even if G^d Himself came down and told them that it is from the Jews, He would have no say. In fact, it needed an Italian (e.g. Western) Sheikh (with a Catholic mother) to tell us: ‘It says in the Koran that the Holy Land is of the Jews. G^d is a religious Zionist.’ It doesn’t matter. What is important is that we consider it ours.
But — surprise! — in case you’d think that the culture that votes for the factual (the West) is superior to the one that supports feelings (like Arab culture), think again. The fact-finding exact sciences have weakened the standing of feelings in the West. While you don’t need to be Freud to understand what a crucial role feelings play in our lives and our decision processes. How accurate is a portrayal of the world sans feelings?!
One can even find events that in one culture are called deceitful and in another are deemed nice. In the Netherlands, when you say: “You can always count on me,” it means: always. In Arab culture, it means: “I now feel that you can always count on me.” They may have forgotten saying this in two minutes flat, but when they said it, they meant it.
So, while the Arab world may have a bad name for ‘lying,’ people with a Western background who say something not-factual are the liars. While people with an Arab background may say the same untruthful words and not be immoral because they didn’t try to lie. Rather, he tried to depict a certain truth of what he thought deserves more credit. Understand this!
This all is different from a Qanon follower who believes that Hillary drinks baby blood. She’s become part of a cult and been force-fed fake facts (I like the ffff). Her phony-belief is fake-facts-based. Not narrative-based.
It really goes wrong when the Western media portray Arab truth as factual while it often did not intend to give proofs. Like in Anti-Zionism. See this:
Gray Areas Between Lies and Truths
As far as I’m concerned (but many will disagree), ‘a little white lie’ is a lie. Lying for convenience. To defend. But sometimes this can be ethical. To mislead someone trying to murder so that the intended victim escapes. Or, less heavy, we may avoid the ‘full’ truth to protect a secret someone felt safe telling us, or to save someone feeling embarrassed. The aim is not to lie but to protect. To violate trust put in us would be the evil thing to do.
This is the opposite of lying with the truth. Saying only truthful things in a way that misleads. Hiding all the money you borrowed from someone in your cane. In court then saying to the accuser: “Here, hold my cane so that I can swear. I swear that I gave him back all the money already.”
But there are many forms of untruths that don’t seem to be a stretch, Besides what we discussed above, the cultural use of un-factual positions.
One example is what my mother used to call: “If I lie, I lie in commission.” This means, If it is not true what I’m saying, it’s not because I’m lying but because I’m conveying what I was told, and as far as I know, it’s true.
Another untruth form is the exaggeration. No one will call it factual or lying. When recounting, it’s important to watch out not to exaggerate.
Its little sister, trivialization, may do even more harm. “I took it without permission, but to call it stealing …” “I took it, but no one will miss it.”
And then, many people are used to saying: “This is …” while they mean: “In my opinion, this is …” There’s no accounting for taste. Beauty and ugliness are in the eyes of the beholder. An honest opinion could be based on a lie or a mistake but cannot be a lie by itself.
Even people who seem to lie outright, actually are often barely aware of the wishful ‘thinking’ they employ. As soon as we’d profit from a certain way of thinking or acting, suddenly, many can rationalize, justify, and defend it. Especially, a monetary increase seems to play with our ability to have a somewhat objective vision. Gain can make many ‘think’ that an obviously lying politician is still right when we profit from his policies. But also in small ways, greed can too easily interfere. A little gift, a friendly nod from someone, and suddenly we see things totally differently. This is very hard to observe in ourselves but in others, it’s often obvious. The best defense I can think of is not “to be honest anyway” (whatever that’s supposed to mean), but rather, to give being honest a very priority.
Flattery is also a form of falsehood that often flies under the moral radar. “I just wanted to say something positive.” What could be wrong with that? Well, there’s a giant difference between using positive words to encourage people to improve their lives (yes, you can), and using such words about the same people for a job application, as if they already had improved.
Dishonesty plays a major role in keeping up a facade. Pretending you are of feel better than you actually are. (Some, rarely, pretend that they’re worse, morally or financially, than is accurate.) This may be such a habit or societal cultural norm that you’re not even aware of doing this. You can’t have real friends until you break the make-believe way you live.
Another untruth without lying comes from our brain guarding our mental health. We may forget things as long as they are too painful to recall. We may have no memory or even an opposite memory of what actually went on. When we observe it in others, we might say: “He’s lying to himself.”
Extra misleading is if once, we were victimized and we haven’t healed yet. Then, we may take an innocent remark as an attack. Or (worse), victimize others while under the false impression that we are (still) the victim.
And then there are the familiar antiquated voices in our head that we are so this, that, or the other. Mostly discouraging. But also encouraging self-affirmations are no reality yet. Meant badly or well, this is lie nor truth. They may turn into self-fulfilling prophecies. Not from clairvoyance but from making happen what you called for.
Our delusions may be so fanciful that others will call us crazy. Not: liars.
And then there are mistakes. 1 + 1 = 3 can be just an honest mistake. Having the same amount of respect for rocks as for humans is a mistake. A lie is what people often employ to cover up their mistakes. “I didn’t say that.” “It wasn’t me.” “I was actually right if you’d only consider…”
And so, there are many ways to be untruthful while we hardly are lying.
And then there are lies mixed with truths. Professional liars will always add some truth to make their lies sound more believable. But there is also ‘almost saying the full truth.’ Or not saying anything untrue but purposely and misleadingly leaving out something essential. But when something is left out not purposely, it just may give a misunderstanding, not a lie.
After all this talk about things that are untruthful but that cannot be called a lie, as sort of a pacifier, I would like to mention something that makes being honest bigger, instead of just questionable. Something that in itself is not honesty but it contributes greatly to integrity. Loyalty. Faithfulness. That you’re not so ‘flexible’ that today, nothing that was true yesterday is taken for granted anymore. Although that has the danger of you becoming rigid, and with that denying signs of new truths coming in.
The Fallacy of the Uniform Person
There is this myth that some people are bad and some are good, and that they are completely one or the other.
Reality teaches that this is inaccurate.
It is a mistake to think there are two kinds of people. Almost all of us have a good and an evil inclination. To make people into idols is so inaccurate.
What to make of a woman raised poor, who became a national leading fighter for women’s rights and equality, fought against the Nazi occupier, risked her life hiding Jews, but sadistically abused her own children?
The Jewish Jewish Sages do talk about wicked and good people but on closer inspection, that refers to people whose deeds are mostly wicked or mostly good, not two classes of people. On the other hand, the story of Pharaoh’s stubbornness seems to teach us that some people can have gotten to a phase where they are most likely too steeped into evil that it’s silly to expect any good from them still. For naive people (many holy Jews), it’s good to remember that not everyone is like them. Some people are really steeped in evil to a degree that you will never fully be able to grasp. But, still on another hand, Holocaust survivor Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach often taught: ‘You never know.’ He explains: Some people can surprise you. The miser who would not give a cent for charity, next thing you know, will give his life defending the Jewish People. Don’t write off anybody.
Most people are great in some areas and may be terrible in others.
Perfectionism may make this worse. This attitude is not a rational attempt to improve but an addiction that gives too much energy to some areas of life while neglecting others. It’s far from being perfect.
Here are 3 categories with a few examples of people both great and tiny:
- Ignoring their problematic side:
Picasso. Unparalleled artist, treated women worse than trash.
Einstein. Greatest scientist and pacifist ever, treated his wife like trash.
- Ignoring their greatness:
The best Dutch cabaret songwriter ever also wrote antisemitic texts for the Nazi occupier. His work is associated with those who performed it.
Fabulous Israeli singer who died while there was a police complaint against him from a woman for abuse. No street is named after him.
- People fighting whether to erase the great or the evil side:
Great US Statesmen who also were sexists, slave traders, and occupiers.
Great artist who also was a shrewd pedophile who hurt many young boys.
My approach: Grant them their greatness and note their evil.
It’s a mistake to regard people as only good or bad. And making people into artificial fake heroes is setting the scene for one day, their statues being thrown over bitterly. Let people be just people.
On top of this, we can safely say that there is no objective truth about things. Often, only a set of opposite observations together gives some accurate picture, especially about something so complicated as people.
Instead of celebrating ‘people,’ we should learn to celebrate relationships. ‘S/he means a lot to me’ is often much more accurate than: ‘S/he’s great.’
This is true for groups of people and theories and ideas and traditions too.
A. In every group, you have people who are great examples of how to be and who are great examples of how not to be. Modern Hebrew, often even shorter than English (compared to German), calls this: ‘Yesh veyesh,’ [In every group, you] have [those kind] and [you] have [those kind].
B. Some theories are great for explaining one thing and worthless for something else. Physics is great for science but worthless for ethics. Some psychology is great for understanding people while worthless for biology.
C. Every worthwhile or even great tradition needs scrutiny and cleaning up. Why embrace or reject the whole package if, more realistically, you could both celebrate the greatness and disavow dirt that has crept in?
I find that the Sages were completely honest. But not every Jew is. Not even every religious Jew or leader. For millennia, calling Jews liars (for denying Jesus as ‘the Son of G^d’) must have had its influence too.
BTW: The whole idea of ‘great people’ needs revision. The Sages already mention that if you’re with the Messiah in the desert and you have just enough water for yourself to make it safely out of there, and if you share you would both die, you drink it. G^d gave it to you. But if you can only save your life by killing an innocent person, you don’t. Is your blood redder than his? Who has more impact on what people think in our generation: the phenomenal thinker who authored a dozen books, or a popular writer who sold half a billion novels? The Queen’s speech seen by a billion people or the TikTok clip that went viral (virtually pandemical) in hours? Think of the author no one reads who’ll be a leading thinker in another century.