Phi Beta Cons

Lying at Penn State

Once the initial shock of the sexual-abuse revelations at Penn State had passed, I think the thing that most bothered me about the whole episode was Joe Paterno’s lying under oath to the grand jury during the investigation. He had covered up truly hideous and harmful behavior toward the young people in his charge, and the opportunity for some modicum of redemption was available in coming clean once the horror of it had come to light. Instead, he deliberately and repeatedly lied under oath, even as he must have known that his lies would be uncovered. Something has happened to our collective regard for the truth.

I remember, years ago, Sisela Bok’s remarking on a commercial that showed a person lying to his boss about being sick. Bok saw this as unusual for the time: casual lying being presented as acceptable in a casual context. Today, movies, television shows, and probably commercials too show lying without compunction and usually without comeuppance as a way of life, a mode of being. It may be hard to believe, but it wasn’t always that way. Of Watergate it was said that the initial break-in might have been born, but the lies and coverup are what did Nixon in. But by the time Clinton’s lies under oath had been exposed, together with his efforts at covering them up, including witness tampering, the judgment had changed to “Everybody does it.”

John Edwards, Anthony Weiner, and other public figures have helped infect the entire country with their bland and aggressive lying, so that a person’s word seems no longer to mean anything, leading to cynicism and further dishonesty. One can see the wisdom of Dante’s placing liars and other fraudsters even further down in the inferno than those whose sins are carnal and sexual. Telling deliberate falsehoods shreds the fabric of trust and communication that holds a society together.


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