Contemplation: Lies, Truths, and What We Believe

I truly believe that some of my best contemplations spring forth from the vast ponderings of others which I encounter at various moments of my life.  These “ponderings of others” may come in any number of forms.  They may be textual, verbal, visual, audible, and so on and so forth.  The nature of it is really fascinating though in that a spark of one person’s thoughts and feelings can ignite a fire of another’s.

You may note that I opened this contemplation writing “I truly believe . . ” which I did so intentionally because of the nature and intended content here within, which will focus directly upon the nature of lies, truth and belief.  But first, before I dive full into my own examination of the subject matter, I strongly urge you to read through the pondering which so influenced my own thoughts. 

That pondering, of which I speak, came from Academy Award winning director Errol Morris in his two part contemplation entitled “Seven Lies about Lying: Part 1 and Part 2.”  I have to admit, upon reading both parts of Mr. Morris’ deep analysis of the nature of lying and deception and how they exist within the human spectrum, I find that  he has succeeded at writing a poignant and thought provoking piece not just on the acts of lying or deceiving but on the very nature of human understanding of truth and reality and how difficult, if not impossible, it can be to determine that “true reality” of things.  

Having spent a lot of time in college, and since beyond, contemplating various philosophical conundrums, this was not my first encounter with thoughts and examination on the nature of lies and lying.  I myself have partaken in the thought experiment of it, both through personal internal contemplations and also in the actual physical involvement.

One occasion of actual involvement, which seemed to force the issue of truth, lies, and belief on a whole classroom of students, occurred during my first semester of my undergraduate senior year.  I will admit, up front, that the exact play of events is clouded and likely partially fabricated, though I will leave it to you, dear reader, to determine whether or not this fabrication is intentional deception or merely the result of faulty memory.  The story goes something like this:

I was in a class called, I believe, “Travel Literature,” which was taught by one of my favorite professors in college, a Mr. Robert Garlitz.  As the title of the course should suggest, the nature of the material examined within dealt with writings about traveling.  To be honest I cannot currently remember all of the books we read but that isn’t really that important right here and now.  What I do recall is that each student had to do a presentation project based on some aspect of travel.  Over the course of a couple weeks we all went through our presentations on various subjects.  I recall a lot of PowerPoints and very little actual content (which may be because I can’t stand PowerPoint presentations and thus have a hard time paying attention to them beyond noting their damnable presence).

I chose to do my presentation on Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything is Illuminated and how the fiction of the novel was based upon realities of Mr. Foer’s actual travels and how as such this created a duality in the role of travel as personal experience and fictional creation.  Everything is Illuminated was, and still very much is, a favorite novel of mine.  Part of the love I have for it is the nature of narrative and the role of perspective to develop a sense of truth even when not all the details match up or make perfect believable sense (fits right in on this discussion I believe).  I won’t say that I was terribly excited about doing the presentation (mostly because I always end up feeling very anxious and uncomfortable whenever I have to stand and speak in front of people) but I was relatively pleased with the content I had put together on the project.

Now, while I have already mentioned that I was very fond of Garlitz as a professor, I must confess that there was a good number of other students who did not share these feelings with me.  I believe this tends to be the case with just about any teacher, in that they have those who greatly enjoy them and their teaching styles and then there are those who cannot stand them.  Because Garlitz tended to take an arguably different approach to literature classes than many people were accustomed to, he always seemed to have a fair share of students who insisted upon the fact that he was a terrible professor.  I would make a point of disagreeing with them by suggesting that it might be their expectations, far more than Garlitz’s teaching style, that gave them such difficulties.  Let it be noted that few people like to have the source of fault put upon their own person.  As such my points in defense of Garlitz were often disregarded.

On the day that I was to give my presentation on Everything is Illuminated a particularly heated argument broke out in the class between Garlitz and a number of his detractors.  I cannot claim to recall the exact content of the disagreement, but I do remember that it dealt with the nature of lies and truth in much the same way as Mr. Morris has done in his article above.  However the heated nature of the debate threatened to escalate it out of the realm of valuable academic dialogue and into the general meaningless discordance of a shouting match.  Faced with the choice of stoking the fire more or moving on, Garlitz ended the debate by pointing out that there were a number of students who needed to present that day and time was fleeting.

So presentations commenced and it passed that I had my turn and went before the class to speak.  Before beginning Garlitz whispered to me, somewhat cryptically, “play along when you’re done.”  While I was uncertain what he intended by this I decided that the best route was to do what he had asked to the best of my ability. 

So I gave my presentation just as I had planned it and ended by asking the class for any questions.  There might of been one or two from my peers but nothing terribly significant.  Noting that the presentation was wrapping up I looked to Garlitz partially for approval to return to my seat and partially to see what his “playing along” required. 

It was at this point that Garlitz looked out to the class and said “Did you enjoy that presentation and find it interesting and informative?”  There was a general response of “yes” and “uh-huh” from the class.  Then Garlitz, in a way that was a truly defining characteristic of his, nearly impossible to describe, but perhaps best noted as a gleam of self-satisfaction said to everyone ” You know that Nathaniel just made it all up don’t you?” 

I felt a momentary ping of panic before pushing it down and reminding myself to “play along.”  The class had responded in turn with an overall look of puzzlement, not quite grasping what Garlitz was saying to them.  Noting this he continued to say to them “Nathaniel has never read Everything is Illuminated.  I asked him to make up a presentation on it, based merely upon what information he could put from the Internet and other source or just to make content up himself.” He then looked at me and said. “Right?”  I believe I nodded in agreement, not quite trusting myself to speak yet, though at this point I  had fully grasped onto what Garlitz was doing.  The early heated argument was not over yet, it had merely been put on hiatus till this moment, and now I was a central figure in it and the nature of truth and lies.

I wasn’t the only one who seemed to realize at this point what was going on.  Several of the students who had engaged in the earlier argument quickly shot the accusation that Garlitz was lying and that he was just trying to be clever and make a point.   For his part Garlitz denied this wholly and stated that he was doing no such thing.  At this point the doubting students, unable to sway Garlitz into changing the fact that my presentation had just been entirely fabricated and made-up, turned to me and demanded the truth.  Realizing how wrapped into this I now was I simply stated, in an outright but calmly delivered lie, “I have never actually read Everything is Illuminated. I just made all of this content up based on a few bits of information I found online.”  I then asked Garlitz if I could return to my seat, to which he nodded, and thus I did so.

Still there were a number of my fellow students who couldn’t let it go.  They kept trying to drag the discussion on the truth of my presentation on, but Garlitz insisted that the classed needed to continue on with other presentations.  As I remember it, for several days afterwards, there were one or two students who continued to ask me if I was just making up that I had made up the presentation to “play along” with Garlitz’s scheme.  I continued to lie to them blatantly, and insist that I truly had just made up the whole presentation and had never read the book.

But why? 

Why did I agree to play along with Garlitz?  Why did I deliberately partake in deceiving and lying to my peers and then continue to maintain those deceptions long after the fact?  I cannot say for sure, but I remember that it kept me up for some nights thinking about he whole thing.  Contrary to what some of you might think, I didn’t feel guilty in having been a tool of deception, instead I think I felt a kind of proud release.  I think the release came in the sense or awareness that in having lied and maintained the outward deception to others, I had become an arbitrator to an actual truth.

Let me explain.

To those whom I had succeeded in deceiving they would believe that I truly had not read the book and had just made up the presentation.  Their belief in this “truth” then was actually a belief in a falseness.  For those fellow students who remained skeptical or not fully convinced there was still the matter that the only real way to determine the truth was through me, and as long as I maintained the deception, no matter how much they doubted, that wouldn’t place any strain on the actual truth of the matter.  The doubters were only able to engage with the asserted truth which was actually a falseness and their own belief in the existence of a “real” withheld truth which I possessed.  I would not relinquish it, and so the actual truth of the matter was entirely my own. 

I suppose this probably comes across as confusing and a bit circular, but I think it strikes at the core of what Mr. Morris was getting at in his article. That lies and deception, truth and falseness, are not things which can be engaged with beyond a totally subjective understanding.  While Mr. Morris may not have come out and said as much himself, the suggestion seems evident.  The “truth” of things is in the eye of the beholder and thus a lie is merely a lens which changes how different individuals created and manipulate truth based on their own beliefs and desires.

Morality most certainly plays a role in the way in which we actively lie or avoid lying but I do not believe that is plays nearly as significant a role as we might think.  In that truth is indescribable to lie about the truth of a matter does not necessitate the disruption of the truth because the solid actual truth was never “solid” or “actual” to begin with.

Make note that I am not suggesting that we don not believe in truths, merely that that believing is part of the problem (problem isn’t really the right word here but it will have to do).  In that we believe a truth then it is indeed a truth.  And when we think we see something false, then there is indeed falseness.  A lie is, again, merely a lens which allows for the manipulation of the true and the false on both the lie receiving end and the lie creating end.  For a lie to be successfully created then, the liar must believe that what they offer is false from the withheld truth with the intention that the believed falseness is perceived by the one lied to as being true.

I admit that it is kind of confusing and frustrating but I also think it is fascinating and it leaves us in a world where we seem to be forced to be constantly evaluating situations to try and grasp the certainty of things.  In the need the certainty relies upon our own beliefs.  If enough people subscribe to a belief then the truth of the matter can become culturally and socially significant and acceptable.  Thus the world functions, on the teetering point between the true and the false and the weight is all in the beliefs.

Of course now you have to ask yourself, “how much of the above is actually true, or am I, in turn, a further victim of deception and lies?”

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~ by Nathaniel on August 7, 2009.

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