Ideas & Debate

When telling the truth or lying is a valuable social skill

PHOTO | FILE Ms Kethi Kilonzo addresses a political rally in Wote, Makueni. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission tribunal on Monday revoked her candidature for the Makueni Senate seat following a dispute over her voter registration status.
PHOTO | FILE Ms Kethi Kilonzo addresses a political rally in Wote, Makueni. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission tribunal on Monday revoked her candidature for the Makueni Senate seat following a dispute over her voter registration status.   NATION MEDIA GROUP

“I swear before the almighty God, that whatever I want to write in this column shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

Okay I am lying. Of course I will write the much that I believe to be true. But I am not swearing before any deity over the veracity of my writings.

For starters, my readers do not constitute a jury. They can criticise and disagree with me all they want but then they are going to contend with our varying opinion. Neither are my writings formal submissions before a court of law. At least I hope not.

Of course my editors have to sieve through my column to eradicate traces of plagiarism — but once they discover that I am simply penning my own thoughts or have attributed borrowed thoughts accordingly, and that I am not necessarily committing libel, I am allowed fair comment to write on whatever I see fit — for as long as it makes sense of course. Not make truth — just make sense. It is called Press freedom.

I can use fictional characters and play a game of flexibility with the truth in an opinion column. I can offer suggestions that I don’t necessarily believe in or even deceive you the reader to read my column by giving it a headline that will make you interested and hence persuade you to read — a job that my editors dutifully perform on my behalf, thankfully.

Like the one claiming that this article will answer if Kethi Kilonzo was lying to us. But yes, this article is inspired by the small case earlier in the week on Kethi’s still born attempt to run for the Makueni senatorial seat and the ensuing shenanigans that followed as the Letangule-led Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) tribunal tried to test the authenticity of her voter registration slip.

The core of the case was based on claims that Kethi was not a registered voter as she claimed and therefore was not validly nominated as a candidate.

In her submission before the tribunal, which she swore to be the truth, IEBC director of voter registration and electoral operations Immaculate Kassait said that the acknowledgment slip Kethi holds was from a booklet that was used to register only one person — former President Mwai Kibaki.

The tribunal upheld her statement and it was on this basis that they nullified Kethi’s candidature. Of course the court of public opinion is still open on the matter. What we can tell for certain is that between Kethi and the commission, one of the parties is lying.

Someone asked me soon after the tribunal ruling whether Kethi’s case should serve an indictment of our failed moral compass as a society or it should simply be viewed as an exception from the norm. Your guess is as good as mine.

Our societal interactions are but one big web of deceit. People are wont to lie to you. We can only try to postulate how much and why. The reality is that, lying is more widespread than you and I may contend. It is so prevalent that we classify some lies as harmless while others as manipulative and shameful.

Think about this, when is the last time someone lied to you? Chances are that you are likely to recall a romantic relationship that went bad because your spouse cheated on you. Or a financial deal gone sour.

We tend to remember a lot of the lies that dent either our hearts or our wallets. Emotional and financial lies touch us to the core because they bring us to a memorable disadvantage.

What we need to realise though is that we, as human beings, have a more intimate relationship with lying than our occasional encounter with betrayed love or a lost shilling.

In a social research conducted by psychologist Robert Feldman, he discovered lies to be so prevalent that at times our human minds elect to disregard them. Spam emails, deceptive advertising, disingenuous social niceties, fake Facebook and Twitter status updates, politicians and lawyers, all form some omnipresent white noise that we’ve learnt to tune out.

In a separate study, Feldman was able to show that in a typical 10-minute conversation between fresh acquaintances, most people tended to lie at least three times.

The motivation for lying? They are diverse. Profit — a mechanic will inflate the cost of a spare part for material gain. Or greed — a spouse will cheat on you with the hope that they can enjoy emotional duplicity at your expense. Avoidance of punishment — a child will deny breaking the glass for fear of being scolded by a parent. All these make sense.

But how do you explain the type of lying where the liar does not stand to gain in any way? It has been shown that two strangers who meet each other, say at a cocktail party, and are both aware that they may never meet again, are more likely to lie to each other than if they knew that their paths will cross again.

Somehow, you find the need to inflate achievements and improve your image in temporary feel-good moment. Sometimes, we lie even when it does not boost our image at all.

There are generally two types of lies. One is lies by commission where we deliberately say a statement that is not true. Second, is a lie by omission, where we withhold information that we know if we divulge, would materially alter the perception or action of the other party.

Could it be that we have a natural lying gene ingrained deep within us, somewhere? If you think about it, it’s probably in our genes because believe it or not, lies tend to maintain the harmony in our society.

Take a simple conversation and imagine strict adherence to the truth. “How are you?” A friend asks you. But you are well aware that one is least interested in whether you slept in a ditch or a bed last night. All that is expected is a simple “I am fine”. Even if it is an outright lie of omission. It’s seen as a lie of social convenience.

Psychologists have found an association between socially successful people and a skill at deception. This means that popular people (read politicians), for whatever reason, tend to be good liars. No exception. This makes lying a valuable social skill — even a survival tact.

Maybe lying may not be as disadvantageous as we may want to think and that integrity in the strict sense of the word is slightly overrated.

Reverting to the original question, did Kethi lie to us? Let me answer it with a rhetorical question — so what if she did, really?
Let him or her without aspersion cast the first stone. For if she did lie, she just proved she is merely human after all. That, my friends, is the painful truth.
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