By the time a young man has become wise to the world, usually when he is already bearing many battle scars, he knows that lies abound in the world. There are lies we tell ourselves, there are lies other people tell us. There are spiteful, distructive lies, there are innocous lies. There are pedestrian lies, there are intellectual lies. There are silly, laughable lies, and there are lies that chill the blood. There are lies borne on the wings of goodwill, and there are lies of malevolence. There are institutional lies, and there are impromptu, spur-of-the-moment lies. There are hidden lies, and there are lies that lie bare naked.
Many sentiments, and beliefs, and presentations, that one comes across in this life are just not true. They are lies waiting to imperil the credulous. Recognizing the reality of lies is a veritable mark of maturity, as is the ability to discern and avoid as many lies as possible, or develop a way to live with those that cannot be avoided. The really bad thing about lies is not that they facilitate immediate or specific self-serving advantages to the lying entity, but that they consciously or unconsciously create and often perpetuate false realities to all but the most adept lie-busters . And seldom is the progenitor of a lie willing or able to come back and set the records straight.
An ucomfortable thought it is, but lies in the world often go from the outside to the inside of innocent folks. We are co-opted, sometimes against our knowledge: often, we stand in the place of the child who must tell a creditor at the door that Papa is not in the house; doesn’t know when the debt was uncured; doesn’t know what for, but must function as a proxy liar; and we stand, too, in the place of the adult, who lies by action, in support of a friend, maybe a spouse, ready to vouch for another’s blamelessness, but is merely the unwitting present-day defender of an unholy transaction, committed in a distant past, filed for future perusal, in a folder named named falsehood, or half-truth. And sometime down the line, the naive will discover the immediate expedience of a lie, even while still wraped in the invicible tentacles of preexisting lies. Lies are contagious.
The African, especially, the one who received the largesse of western education in the early days of colonialism, was lied to. He was told that he cannot govern himself, was not intelligent enough. Colonialism was executed with the facade of a lie. And it was a comparatively mild lie, for a little before that time, the African was told that he wasn’t human enough, and so was rounded like livestock and carted off to slavery. When, centuries after, the avarice of empire-building had run its course, and the nation of America, on which the largest portion of the proceeds of slavery was bequeathed, did not know what to do with the descendants of slaves, it spurned another lie by the name of segregation. Equal but separate. Let the black kid go to a school of only black kids, and let the white kid go to a school of only white kids. It makes no difference, they still get similar education, only within their own communities. But it was a lie, of the bare-naked kind.
Back in Africa, when the lie of colonialism (you cannot govern yourself, I will govern you, and I shall exploit your human and material resources to do so) had finally been unmasked and lampooned too much for any further use, it was swiftly replaced with the lie of neo-colonialism (you are free to govern yourself, but the economic system has been set up so that you really can’t, and it is all your fault).
But the lie is not an invention of colonialists. Before people of pink skin, pointed noses, and nasal talk showed up on African shores, lies were alive and well in African societies. Lies caused young men and maidens, yet full of life, to share the burial fate of deceased monarchs. Lies resurrected greedy and malevolent ancestors, who stooped from the great beyond to inflict tyranny on the bodily existence of their progeny. Lies created and perpetuated such noxious practices as ritual infanticide and outcast clans. The Lie is a human thing.
Such is the ubiquity of lies that, today, our socio-economic and cultural environment, seemingly without human agency, tells us lies. So the young, freshly minted university graduate, having been lied to, believes that he cannot make an honest livelihood in this nation – he is not connected enough, not lucky enough, not smart enough. Now, this young man is on his way to the airport. He has just ingested condoms of cocaine. Despite the odds, if he can make it past security…
In business, lies are clad in three-piece suits. They show up in annual reports, and when you see that full-page advertisement in the newspaper, that request for bids, you had better realize that it may be a lie, for behind the stage, the desired contractor might already know himself, and be known. Several months later, when the winning bid is published, we may be no more than witnesses to the perpetuation of a lie, the nurturing of a lying culture.
In the arena of science, there are numerous occasions where lies have corrupted the “scientific method”, such as the claim of successful cloning of human stem cells, made by the scientist Hwang Woo Suk, a claim that turned out to be false. The man was only trying to pad up the importance of his scientific work, and would mislead the entire world in the process. Lies in science are not even limited to scientistic pursuits – when lawyers furnish academics, and place them in the dock as expert witnesses, lies often spew forth.
Lies that operate on the religious plane have been with us from the dawn of time. Why, for instance, would a church denomination insist, as some have insisted, that its membership is the only candidature for paradise?
One of the most damaging places in which lies have taken lodge are the pages of history books. Sometimes it is the blatant lie, sometimes it is the more insidious single story – an account from a single, often biased perspective. And literature, being a reflection of a people’s psychology and mythology, is filled with creative, entertaining lies, one of which the writer, Chinua Achebe, to the consternation of some of his literary colleagues, had occasion to thoroughly undress. It was a lie so congenitally woven into Joseph Conrad’s seemingly liberal narrative of a character’s encounter with people of a different colour, rendered in Heart of Darkness.
Some lies are couched within adages, stories, and societal conventions. Many times, veritable values, principles, and truisms are thwarted into the service of a lie. “Heaven helps those who help themselves”, for example, is a Nigerian adage often employed to aid and abet a lack of ethical scruples.
So, Mr Imperfect meets Miss Flawed. They say he comes from Mars, and she hails from far away Venus. But they are attracted to each other, and they must do as humans do. In the end, the love is real enough, but not all is at it seemed. He had lain claim to assets that are a little fatter than reality. She had affected affections that run a little deeper than her wells can manage.
This, of course, is not a call for puritanism – that has its own problems. Besides, as hinted before, a lie is usually a bad thing, but not always. Santa Claus, after all, is a lie, but one that turns out to be very useful to growing children. For every person who grew up in the rural homelands of southern Nigeria, much of the myth of the masquerade are lies that turn out to be quite useful for cultural education. With utmost good intentions, when nothing else will do, folks have proudly told lies to save a loved one, even from themselves. While all lies mislead, it so happens that some manage to mislead in beneficial ways.
It appears, instead, that lies must be recognized, at least by every thinking adult, as a thing of this world. It might be profitable, from time to time, to turn on suspended disbelief as we play our parts in this drama called life, but the reality of lies must not slip from grasp. And there is eminent good reason to be particularly careful with this thing of our world: by definition, a lie is not open to bargaining; it simply stands in the place of truth. What will happen when truth returns?