I hate lies. But for me, it doesn’t end there.
I hate when we encourage lies over honesty. How easy it is to conveniently forget. To ignore the truth. To misremember on purpose. Or just happen to not remember at a critical moment.
“I don’t recall,” we say.
Our brains are funny things, really.
While we’re awake, they have thousands of pieces of stimulus and have to recognize what is important enough to put into long-term storage. It is a complex system of neurons and light-speed.
There is great complexity in our brains and yet it seems so easy. We remember facts and random junk we read. Usually, what we eat for lunch and random conversations we have throughout the day. We don’t remember everything, but we sure seem to remember a lot. Especially the important stuff.
We have tremendous confidence in our memories, but they aren’t foolproof. They get fooled all the time. And user error can be high.
Just look at the trouble with eyewitness testimony.
So our memories aren’t paragons of certainty.
But we trust them anyway. Why? Because we have no other choice.
Forgetting can be dishonest.
We can be coached or have an authority figure fill in the gaps in our memories for us. These filled-in memories then solidify and become permanent. We even come to believe we saw those gap-filling things. Not because we intend to lie, but because our brains want them there. They become part of our memory.
When we coach or push a person to remember a certain thing, we are manipulating their memories and our search for truth. These acts are part of a systemic failure in the search for truth. They’re insidious. They don’t feel like lies, but ultimately they are. They are ways we change the experienced truth and distort our memories.
I hate this stuff. But not as much as I hate the way we reward lying in public.
We have discovered the perfect weasel phrase to get out of anything. When an official or nominee is brought before congress and asked about an event, all s/he has to say is
“I don’t recall.”
Simple. Three words.
Did you have sex with prostitutes?
I don’t recall.
Did the hat really sort you into Ravenclaw and not Slytherin?
I don’t recall.
Have you ever tripped over your own feet?
I don’t recall.
Of course, s/he recalls. Memory doesn’t fail like that. If you somehow forgot what house you were sorted into, it reveals a lot about you, particularly your lack of enthusiasm for Harry Potter. And I can’t trust anybody who’s a little too “meh” about Harry Potter. You probably also like to talk through movies and explain why these things couldn’t actually happen.
Here’s the thing: we all know you’re pleading the 5th. You’re copping out.
And the one thing that bothers me the most about it is that if you are copping out, then saying that phrase is lying.
Truth and the burden of proof
When a person under oath says “I don’t recall” chances are good they can. The trouble we get into is what do with this logic trap. How can we prove memory and one’s ability to recall? We can’t reach inside the mind to extract memories. We’re stuck.
The best we can do is to prove the case without them. Prove the person was actually there and that the events happened in such a way that we don’t actually need the testimony. S/he can say all day “I don’t recall” but we don’t care anymore because we have discovered the truth anyway.
Or we can try to convince the non-rememberer to remember for the sake of the hearing.
Proving the truth or proving the dishonesty of the person under oath is a high standard, and often near impossible. And when our focus is placed on proving that standard, then we’re already sunk.
However, the very nature of our system relies on people telling the truth under oath.
This is why it matters to me that we not let this phrase (or ones like it) be such a cop out. To preserve truth. Because there are two options:
- S/he lied. They do remember. And under oath, they have deceived and undermined the court. And the more this tactic gets used, the more congress and the court is undermined.
- S/he honestly doesn’t remember. And if this is the case, s/he still looks guilty. Precisely because of the other person who fails to recall information on purpose. The credibility of those coming before congress or the courts becomes increasingly compromised the more people lie about their memories.
Memories are fickle enough. We don’t have to help it along.
Lying is unethical.
Ultimately, this is the point. Lying is unethical. And partisan witch-hunts, legal testimonies, and manipulations of the rules of our adversarial system exacerbate the problem.
Letting a lie be a copout encourages lying.
When we encourage lying, we compromise the very fabric of society.
A society which relies on honesty and integrity.
And that’s the point.
If we accept certain lies and not others, we destroy trust.
It’s just a little lie. Our memories are fickle, anyway, we say. What’s the harm? It’s just a little CYA, no big deal. Trust me. I’d never lie to you.