In the early 1980s, a New York real estate mogul called up a journalist to lie about the size of his wealth.
He longed to get on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans and felt confident he could fool the journalist into printing that he had far more money than he actually had. So he disguised his voice on the phone, pretending to be someone with insider knowledge, and told a string of white lies.
It worked. The journalist printed that the businessman was worth 20x more than he was actually worth. It took the journalist decades to find out what had happened, but by then it was too late to fully set the record straight. The businessman had built an entire career around the inflated numbers.
It’s how the businessman lived. He showed up at charities with heavy media coverage, pretending to be a big-time donor, and gave nothing. He said his personal apartment had as many as 15 or 20 or 30 rooms, and later admitted the number of rooms was “however many they will print.” He got a gig on a TV show and spread false rumors that it was the most watched thing on television, justifying his claim by saying, “You just tell them, and they believe it.” Even those who worked for him openly admitted to telling white lies on his behalf.
White lies. Trivial lies. Exaggerations built on a speck of truth.
Of course, white lies weren’t invented by this conman, and people like him can only thrive in a culture (such as ours) that peddles in white lies—a culture where reality TV dominates the airwaves alongside infotainment news, where Instagram and Facebook push us toward curated perfection or curated imperfection, or both.
One way or another, the allure of white lies seems too appealing to resist.
Where does this allure come from? How has it infiltrated our culture?
The Current Assault Against Silence
More than a half century ago, one of history’s best thinkers, Aldous Huxley, spoke out against a seemingly innocuous profession:
According to Huxley, “All advertising copy has but one purpose—to prevent the will from ever achieving silence.” If your will is silent and you are satisfied with life, advertisers can’t earn a living.
And how do advertisers grab your attention?
They tell white lies.
Coca-Cola positions vitaminwater as a “nutrient-enhanced water beverage,” even though it has nearly as much sugar as Coke. Dr. Oz advertises bogus medical advice under the authority of being a doctor. Taboola displays omnipresent ads online that say, “here’s the shocking trick to reduce wrinkles” and “everyone is buying these $24 yoga pants”:
And we’ve all experienced what it’s like to get food that looks nothing like what’s advertised.
These lies are so common we just accept them. We’re told that of course you shouldn’t believe that advertisements reflect reality. When it comes to vitaminwater, for instance, Coca-Cola’s lawyers said, “no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking vitaminwater was a healthy beverage,” despite the fact that Coca-Cola’s marketing team had poured millions into trying to mislead consumers into thinking just that.
It’s also not enough for advertisers to tell these white lies once. To get noticed, advertisers have to repeat the lies—at least seven times, according to an old marketing adage.
This repetition makes for a lot of noise, which is the connection Huxley made all those years ago. “The twentieth century is, among other things, the Age of Noise,” he wrote. “Physical noise, mental noise and noise of desire — we hold history’s record for all of them. And no wonder; for all the resources of our almost miraculous technology have been thrown into the current assault against silence.”
Adding to the Landfill
If the 20th century was the age of noise, what is the 21st century?
If anything, we’re louder. TV news is loud. Billboards are loud. Twitter is loud. And all the while, almost all mass media is still driven by advertisers—purveyors of white lies.
So what’s the problem?
Telling a single white lie isn’t a big deal. It’s like using a single plastic bottle and throwing it into a trash can. Doesn’t matter in the grand scheme.
But the problem isn’t a single plastic bottle. The problem is that we’re buying more than a million plastic bottles a minute, with less than half going to recycling. And casual plastic bottle use, a billion times over, matters. (To give one illustration, those who regularly eat shellfish ingest up to 11,000 plastic fragments in their food each year because so much plastic waste ends up in the ocean.)
What if we’re facing a similar problem with white lies? What if we’ve become so inured to marketing hyperbole that it has seeped into our everyday speech, and what if the consequences are catching up to us?
I see two consequences of our casual acceptance of white lies—one political and one spiritual.
First, the political. “A little hyperbole never hurts,” the conman I mentioned above once said. He added, “People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole.”
It seems we let this conman get away with too much truthful hyperbole, and now this master of reality TV, a self-professed lover of the white lie, is the president of the United States. He’s dominating the airwaves, playing foil to his long-time friend, Jeff Zucker, who hired him at NBC and who is now the head of CNN. Behind doors, CNN isn’t complaining. Trump saved them from collapse. It’s white lies all around, a TV show filled with manufactured outrage between offscreen chums, driven by advertising dollars.
After all, manipulating the press is Trump’s primary skill. He’s not book smart, but he is TV smart. He has an uncanny ability to get everyone talking about him (here I am, doing just that!), which has served his brand well. Many of his business practices have either failed, been fraudulent, or remain hidden from sight. But his work as an advertiser — that’s impressive.
And yet even when Trump is gone, the problem of the white lie will remain with us. That’s the problem we must address if we want to strike at the root, and that problem is spiritual.
More than anything, Aldous Huxley worried about spiritual corrosion when it came to noise, advertising, and mass media. He wrote that this noise induces deep human craving, which “is the principal cause of suffering and wrong-doing and the greatest obstacle between the human soul and its Divine Ground.”
In other words, we tell white lies to induce craving, but craving separates us from the divine, however we define it. This lesson is what “all the saints and teachers of all the higher religions have always taught,” Huxley writes.
Viewed this way, a million white lies are spiritually corrosive for the simple reason that they de-sensitize us. If a bit of traffic is the worst, what words do we use to describe the slow death of a child to cancer? If we treat the phony stakes of reality TV as genuinely terrible, what do we do with the stakes of a country on the brink of war? If an Instagram feed is #authentic, what about the parts of life that don’t look pleasant, that will not “perform well” no matter how many filters we apply? White lies inure us to suffering and in so doing corrode spiritual health.
What are we to do? Beyond reading good fiction (which is a lie that tells the truth—the exact opposite of a white lie), supporting organizations such as Medium and Wikipedia that don’t rely on ads, being more aware of the words we use, demanding better from the people we elect, and cultivating silence, I’m not sure. I just know I don’t want to contribute any more to the landfill.