Thou shalt not lie

by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

Taboo (Issue I/2021)


The author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen questions the taboo of lies. Photo: Philippe Matsas

What could be smarter than pretending to be taboo? Donning a halo of “strict rules” while in fact batting your eyes temptingly from behind the threatening rhetoric of the “absolutely forbidden”? “Keep away from lies,” says the Bible. “A lie has short legs,” says a proverb. But in their resoluteness, these sayings also signal to sharp-eyed readers just how much room for negotiation there is when it comes to lies. After all, if lies were an absolute taboo, as parents often tell their kids, why is the taboo of lying traversed more often than your average zebra crossing?

Take Pinocchio, for example. The Italian children's fairy tale about a good-hearted woodcarver, creator of the wooden doll that became world famous thanks to its distinguishing feature - a nose that grows longer as a punishment for lying. In order to transform himself from a wooden doll into a boy of flesh and blood, Pinocchio has to slot into the social order and prove himself morally worthy of the life breathed into his body. Until then, during the “trial period” imposed on him, his growing nose betrays every lie he tells. To transform from a wooden puppet into a real boy, Pinocchio must tell the truth.

One could say that it is this very ability to lie that sets the flesh-and-blood child apart from a flawless puppet

But in real life, beyond the fairy tale, the ability to lie is an enormous step forward in child development. One could even say that it is this very ability that sets the flesh-and-blood child apart from a flawless puppet. The ability to lie signals detachment from parents, rebellion against authority and forms an important stage in the child's development towards autonomy. We punish our offspring for their lies, but remember only too well those we ourselves once told our parents, the lies that formed milestones in our relationship with them. Lying is a sin, true, but is a highly human sin. When a child lies, they signal that they now belongs to the family of human beings, to those linguists who can play with words and conceal them. The first time the child lies, it suddenly realises that language, which is mostly used to describe reality, can also be used to disguise reality or invent another reality. A child who never lies is a perfect plaything of the parental will, a puppet. A child who lies is a real child.

Pinocchio is a fairy tale that tries to make lies a taboo, but in fact proves the opposite. In contrast to taboos such as incest and patricide - deeds, which most people avoid dwelling on in detail because our individual consciousness recoils at the very idea - the lie is a fictitious taboo. This means that most of the time we would like to make the ban on lying itself taboo. Or, at other times, we interpret the strict ban only as a recommendation, or an annoying obstacle.

Our ambivalent attitude towards lies is revealed when we explore the first lie of humankind. During the work on my latest book, at the end of a particularly tedious day of writing, I decided to to pursue the matter. I opened the Bible and asked myself how many pages there were between God's creation of man and the first lie. I am an absolute atheist, but have respect for mythologies and the human truth they contain. Seen in a Darwinist light, I think that mythologies offer us a prime example of the survival of the fittest. After all, a story must be robust, it must contain a perfect sequence of cultural DNA to be handed down from generation to generation for so long.

The first words Adam says to God are a complete lie

But back to the Bible: you don't actually have to leaf through it for long to get from the story of creation to the first lie. After Adam has eaten from the tree of knowledge, God asks him, “Adam, where are you?” And Adam replies: “I heard you coming, and I hid, because I was afraid, because I was naked.” Of course this is not true. Adam did not hide because of his finely tuned sense of wearing the appropriate attire. He did so because he had violated the ban on eating an apple and was afraid of punishment. This means that already the first words Adam says to God, the first words he ever utters, are a complete lie, uttered in an effort to escape punishment.

But if the lie is so firmly rooted in the human soul, why do human societies always try to make it taboo? In his controversial book “Totem and Taboo”, Sigmund Freud describes incest and patricide as two prohibitions that underlie the social order. One could say that the violation of these prohibitions would directly undermine, even make impossible, our coexistence. In contrast, there are symbolic taboos - such as the ban on eating a certain animal - whose transgression more indirectly affects the social order. Here the lie occupies a particularly interesting place.

It seems that we want to eradicate the lie and brand it a taboo

In order to understand our ambivalence towards the lie, we must bear in mind that human society requires the cooperation of a large number of individuals, which is based on trust. As historian Yuval Noah Harari shows, the greatest human achievements are based on the willingness of many individuals to focus their efforts on the same goal. And this willingness is based on complicated linguistic communication and the trust of the participants that their cooperation will bear fruit in the future. Whether we want to set up a listed company, build a “tower with a peak to the sky” (as the Bible says about the Tower of Babel), send a fleet of ships to a distant place, or establish a system of schooling, these ventures cannot be undertaken without a minimum of trust from those involved. If trust is really the glue that holds all human activity together, then the lie is a tangible threat to social cohesion. A bank that lies about its situation endangers the whole of economic stability, because the loss of confidence in the banks leads to the collapse of the economy. A spouse who is found to have lied endangers the stability of the whole family. It seems that we want to eradicate the lie and brand it a taboo because we see the breach of trust as a frontal attack on our society.

On the other hand and in the same breath we teach our children to lie all the time. We rebuke them when they tell their grandmother that their casserole tastes awful, or when they point out that the man in the lift has funny ears. As adults, we avoid our tactless contemporaries who speak roughly and openly. Israeli society, of which I form part, rebukes journalists who reveal unpleasant things as “unpatriotic”. Doing this means effectively declaring that the truth is less dear to us than the lies that make us believe we are in the right. It seems that there is only a certain amount of truth that we can cope with - with our partners, in our relationship with our parents, with our children, with our history. Most of the time we would rather have our truth diluted and watered down. The hidden taboo, the lie, is publicly ostracised by everyone, but secretly sanctified. It is a fictional taboo, an absolute prohibition that includes occasional permission. Everyone condemns the lie, but no one can live without it.

Translated by Ruth Achlama and Jess Smee

similar articles