Just about 20 years ago, Bill Clinton apologized for all he "had done wrong in words and deeds." He went on to say that he never should have misled the country, Congress, his friends, or his family. He said the reason for his deceitfulness about an affair with an intern was that he had given in to his shame.
A week after apologizing, on Dec. 19, 1998, Clinton was impeached by the U.S. Congress. On Feb. 12, of the following year, he was acquitted of all charges by the U.S. Senate. Clinton remained in office and served out his second term. He was only the second president of the United States to be impeached by Congress. (The first was Andrew Johnson in 1868. He was also acquitted.)
The week after Clinton delivered his apology, I wrote acolumn about the consequences lying can have. I wasn't focusing on the consequences to those who lie, although being impeached can certainly leave a stain. Instead, I wrote: "When a culture of lying with impunity is perceived to have taken hold at the top, it bodes ill for behavior in the rest of an organization."
If people at the top send the message that it's acceptable to lie, regardless of the reasons, it sets the tone for loyal followers or determined opponents.
Sisela Bok, the author of Lying: Moral Choices inPublic and Private Life (Vintage Books, 1989) clarified for me at the time that being truthful and refraining from lying doesn't necessitate disclosing everything to everyone all the time. "There's great room for discretion, for knowing when not to speak," she said.
I was reminded of Bok's comments recently after SebastianStockman, a former student who is now an associate teaching professor at Northeastern University, tweeted some passages from Bok's book on lying, observing that it is "fullof bangers."
"Human beings ... provide for each other the most ingenious obstacles to what partial knowledge and minimal rationality they can hope to command," Bok wrote.
She observed that the "whole truth is out of reach. But this fact has very little to do with our choices about whether to lie or to speak honestly, about what to say and what to hold back."
We can find any number of reasons to lie, but these rarely result because of our inability to know the whole truth about any situation.
While it seems as if we are being more bombarded by lies than ever before, lying is nothing new. With each incidence, however, these lies erode our trust in the people who live with us, work with us, or lead us.
If possible, challenge those who do lie. If it's a boss who regularly lies, decide if it's time to seek employment elsewhere. If it's an elected official who lies, register to vote and work to vote him or her out of office.
But first, when faced with the temptation to lie, don't. Even if you have a gift for lying and convincing others of your lies. Even if your personal life or career have seemed wildly successful, choose not to lie.
Each lie told has consequences, if not for the person committing the lie, then for those of us who are subjected to those lies.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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