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Sunday 21 April 2019
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Lying competition?

Culture Matters


I had my eye on Liar, The Lion/ Because I know he does come with some good ones/ But they had a younger fellow name Debo/ Come from some village there in Tobago/ He say he father is Tobago's best fisherman/ Catch a fish a mile wide, eighty feet in span/ He had to tie it on he boat and swim back to land/ To get he brother, Eric, to give him a hand.

– Extract from King Liar by Lord Nelson

I THINK I have always been fascinated by the ability of human beings to be creative with the truth. So for me, King Liar, the calypso by Lord Nelson, is one of the best songs I have heard, because of the intriguing nature of the story and the way we are drawn into the competition from beginning to end.

Undoubtedly, the creative world that I live in allows me to see the ability to tell stories as an art form. Stories, whether based on folklore characters or mythical beings, are generally meant to teach lessons or entrench particular morals.

However, as I got older, I realised that stories are not the same as lies, and, while a lying competition is funny, it is only acceptable because the audience is already aware that they are being lied to.

This week, we seemed to be the unwitting audience in a true-to-life lying competition carried on by leaders in our society. From CEOs, to cellphones and herbal remedies, we the audience were treated to lying performances that we preferred not to watch.

So, while the spectators in Lord Nelson’s calypso waited with excitement to see if King Liar would retain his crown, we cringed as our leaders were once again caught being creative with the truth.

Apparently, the ability to lie is an intrinsic aspect of our human nature. Studies have shown that children learn to lie from an early age, as their understanding of the world around them grows and as their instincts for self-preservation develop.

One analyst writes that our “capacity for dishonesty is as fundamental to us as our need to trust others, which ironically makes us terrible at detecting lies. Being deceitful is woven into our very fabric, so much so that it would be truthful to say that to lie is human.”

Paradoxically, it turns out that human beings are not so good at detecting lies. Researchers “have revealed the disquieting fact that most people are extremely bad at detecting lies. Most are able to correctly identify lies just over 50 per cent of the time, while seasoned law-enforcement officers and judges fare only marginally better. However, a small proportion of the population (less than one per cent of the people studied) are naturally talented at detecting lies.”

The successful film Catch Me If You Can illustrates this fact. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Steven Spielberg, it focused on the life of Frank Abagnale, described as “one of the most famous con artists in history.”

Frank was able to convince people that he was everything from a doctor to a pilot, cashed millions of dollars in forged cheques and evaded police until he was caught at the age of, believe it or not, 21.

Frank’s case is not only a fascinating study in self-preservation, but it is also a serious analysis of why liars can get away with fooling us for so long.

“When we are fed falsehoods by people who have wealth, power, and status, they appear to be even easier to swallow ...” So, as Frank himself told an interviewer, “If you say to someone, ‘I am a pilot,’ they are not sitting there thinking: ‘Maybe he’s not a pilot...’”

Similarly, if someone tells you to use bug spray as a remedy for red eye, we are inclined to believe them because the person speaking is on television, appears successful and carries themselves with enough confidence to make any claim seem to be true.

As a child, I listened in glee to Lion the Liar win the lying competition by talking about his tailor who only needs to see “the corner where the fella pass” to make a suit for him. Nelson moralises by telling us, “Teacher Percy say if you tell a lie/ You going to hell as soon as you die.”

In my world view I do not believe in hell, but surely, there must be a special place for our leaders who refuse to respect the difference between a fascinating story and an outright lie.

Dara Healy is a performance artist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN

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