Should we tell white lies?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 September, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 September, 1996, 12:00am

YES Can you imagine how difficult life would be if you could only tell the truth? There would be no life, believe me. Let me give you a few examples.

Social: 'How are you today, David?' Answer 1 - White lie: 'Pretty good. Yourself?' Answer 2 - The truth: 'One step closer, pal, and you're going to get panelled, ya tosser.' Professional: 'I think we should be able to move forward with that proposition. What do you think, David?' Answer 1 - White lie: 'I agree. Although I think there are still areas to be worked on, you have pinpointed some very important aspects of the problem.' Answer 2 - The truth: 'Pondlife. You couldn't organise a beach party if you were stranded on a desert island. You have less experience than me, you are less intelligent than me, you are less well qualified than me, but you are my boss. I want you to know that I have no respect for you and as soon as I get an opportunity I will happily depose you and take your job, hopeful reducing you and your family to a life of poverty and abuse.' Intellectual: 'I find Plato's concept of forms pervades almost all Western philosophy, don't you? Answer - White lie: 'Undoubtedly. The notion that there is an ideal for everything is entrenched in our minds, but is a curse rather than a blessing.' Answer 2 - Truth: 'God is dead, amigo, and if you don't stop spouting that crap, you will be too, capiche?' Sexual: 'You will love me a little bit in the morning, won't you, David?' Answer 1 - White lie: 'Yes.' Answer 2 - Truth: 'I won't be here in the morning.' I challenge you to answer the next question you are asked after reading this column absolutely honestly. No half truths or white lies, just 100 per cent total truth. I guarantee that if you tell the truth long enough you will end up with no friends, no lovers, no job, no family ties, no prospects and no money.

You will not get through today without having an argument if you only tell the truth. Just try it. You'll see. People do not want to be told the truth. What they want is for you to tell them the version of the truth they have decided to believe. The extraordinary thing about white lies is that the person telling the lie knows he is lying and so does the person being lied to. It is deceit by mutual agreement.

It is an amazing feat of human social evolution that we tolerate lies and lying just to make things easier. So what are white lies? Examples of being Janus-faced? Bitchiness? Saying one thing to someone's face and another behind their back? No way. White lies are the lubricants of all human intercourse. Truth is the sawdust in the gear box and should be avoided at all costs. And anyway, why worry about white lies when you can tell black lies? They're much more fun.

NO About 10 years ago, I trotted along to a select press gathering for Prince Andrew, who had just published a book of exceptionally average photographs. As His Snapperness passed along a line of drooling hacks (apart from this reporter, of course who, no word of a lie, was wearing a sort of fascinated sneer on her republican face), he stopped in front of a well-known photographer and said 'Now, X, what did you really think?' 'Marvellous, Your Highness, really marvellous,' fawned X. The Prince looked gratified and passed on, which was lucky because the moment he moved out of earshot, X turned to the rest of us and observed, 'A marvellous pile of crap'.

I like to think that that's how the rot set in chez Windsor - too many toadies telling too many porkies. It's the termites which eventually bring down cathedrals and in the same way it's the accretion of tiny, apparently insignificant untruths, not the huge whoppers, which undermine the high and mighty. That's the crucial distinction between George 'No, papa, I cannot tell a lie' Washington and Richard 'There is no ****ing cover-up' Nixon.

OK, I would be guilty of dissembling if I didn't at this point admit that I have very occasionally, now and then, told a fib or two. They always rebound horribly so that the food I've never particularly liked but have publicly rejoiced over is, therefore, always served at dinner parties, and the friend's terrible dress is lent out with selfless insistence ('Because I know you love it') for that Special Occasion, which itself usually involves some man I wouldn't ordinarily choose to stand next to at a bus stop.

Yes, it's a sad, tangled web I weave, I admit it, and it's time it was carefully unpicked. That's doesn't have to mean a regime of brutal honesty; less adulation, more hesitation is the road ahead, I feel. A touch more sincerity might be good for all our souls and for the body politic. White lies do nicely oil the wheels of social congress - but after a while too much ooze simply makes everything clogged up and disgusting.

And little white lies have a tendency to change size and colour. I've just been reading Jasper Becker's book Hungry Ghosts about the fantasy which was Mao's Great Leap Forward. That whole tragedy stemmed from one initial distortion - that China could catch up with the West in just a few years - but the real untruths came later when the party cadres started making up statistics about bumper harvests. This began as a sort of exaggeration, a biggish white lie if you will. But, of course, like a monster in a nightmare, it grew and grew. In the end, the lie was massive and black, but it had to be sustained and, as a result, 30 million people starved to death.