Guest column Andrea Ayvazian: Lying and its unrelenting damage

  • President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Italian President Sergio Mattarella in the Oval Office of the White House, Wednesday, Oct. 16, in Washington. AP

Published: 10/18/2019 5:00:20 PM
Modified: 10/18/2019 5:00:07 PM

I remember the time, almost the day, when I became suddenly and intensely interested in the issue of lying.

It was 1979, and I was a graduate student in North Carolina. A married male professor of mine became flirty with me — full of looks and winks. Then one day, behind closed doors, he suggested we have an “encounter.” I flushed, stumbled, stammered “No encounter,” and fled.

In the weeks that followed, I remained shaken by the exchange, but I also became fascinated by one dimension of the whole experience. What, I kept wondering, does he tell or not tell his wife? When and how, I kept asking myself, did he learn to be duplicitous, to cheat and to lie?

Sometime after the upsetting exchange with that highly popular professor, I saw a book in the window of a local bookstore and immediately went inside and bought it. The book was “Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life,” by Sissela Bok.

Bok’s words burrowed deep inside me — her book about lying is one of the seminal books that shaped my thinking as a 20-something. One line from her conclusion made a particularly strong impression on me: “Trust and integrity are precious resources, easily squandered, hard to regain. They can thrive only on a foundation of respect for veracity.”

I clung to the Bok book through my many moves as a young adult, packing and unpacking it as I relocated from state to state and apartment to apartment. But somewhere along the way I lost the book. This week I went to the library and took the Bok book off the shelf.

There was everything I remembered — the chapter headings, the quotes from Augustine, Aquinas, Kant, Bonhoeffer, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Freud, the discussions of white lies, excuses, lies in a crisis, lying to liars, lying to enemies, lies to protect peers and clients, lies for the public good and lies to the sick and dying.

When I first read the Bok book in 1979, I was not a stranger to the idea of political deception because I had been in college during the Vietnam War. The web of lies that entangled so many elected officials during that war and eventually brought down a president were familiar to me, and part of my coming of age as an activist.

But Bok’s book stirred something new inside me. Her words and examples page after page made me realize the deeply corrosive nature of lying and lies. Like the drip, drip, drip of acid on metal, lying eats away at trust, confidence, faith and resilience between and among individuals, families, communities, and even an entire country.

We are now living through a time when we are assaulted daily by the constant lying by the president of the United States. The level and degree of Donald Trump’s lying has no precedent in history. Trump seems incapable of truth-telling — and we are paying an enormous price as a nation for his incessant lying. The president’s daily lies are wearing us down and wearing us out. I am fearful that we are subtly and quietly becoming habituated to his lying and almost shrug and dismiss his dangerous falsehoods when we hear his latest lie.

Trump’s unrelenting lying is damaging this country — not just creating a stain on the office of the president, not just undermining our democracy and not just causing us shame worldwide. The president’s endless lying is degrading and debasing the soul of this country, triggering an existential crisis for the nation, and causing many Americans to walk around disoriented, disheartened, disgusted and despairing.

It is tempting, in the face of the president’s relentless lying, to retreat and compartmentalize our feelings of anger and just carry on. But each time we shake our heads and move on, we become more anesthetized to the reality of Trump’s constant lying. Unless we react with appropriate outrage, we become like sedated beings — present but numb, holding real feelings at arm’s length.

Trump’s lying is outrageous and I am in favor of people becoming more visibly and vocally outraged. I am interested in finding new ways to publicly counter the president’s daily lies.

In August, The Washington Post published an article saying that Trump had made 12,019 false or misleading claims over 928 days. Maybe one of our strategies for raising awareness of his lying is to get some of those digital signs used on highways to announce road construction. We could place the digital signs at well-traveled locations and have the current lie count flash before people’s eyes, and we could update it daily as the lies increase.

Maybe we should invest in billboards in red states that announce Trump’s current lie count and leave room on the billboard for the number to be crossed out and amended day after day after day.

Maybe some of us could travel to Washington, D.C. and hold signs in front of the White House — each of us holding a poster with one huge number — that shows the lie count to date. While standing there, we could increase the number as his daily lying occurred.

Sissela Bok’s book on lying has a useful subtitle, “Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life.” Choice is a powerful word. Trump chooses, not just day by day but hour by hour, to lie to the American people. We need to choose to counter the tsunami of lies by naming the lies and naming him as a liar — consistently, dramatically and forcefully.

Each one of us must faithfully speak about our outrage to Trump’s incessant lying. It is the only antidote to counter his lies. Our expressions of outrage must be as constant, as passionate and as continuous as his lying. We must do this for our country, for our kids, for our future and for ourselves — otherwise the constant drip, drip, drip, like acid on metal, will leave our souls in tatters and our democracy in shambles.

The Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian of Northampton is an associate pastor at Alden Baptist Church in Springfield. She is also the founder and director of the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership, which offers free movement-building classes from Greenfield to Springfield.


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