“Big Fat Liar” is a 2002 teen comedy film I binge-watched twice with my kids (ages ten and eight) during a social distancing day. Having admitted to a double screening, it may be that my brain has turned to mush, and I may have lost some credibility, but I know where I am heading. The movie reminds me of my father, and not just that the movie’s fictitious hometown is somewhere named Greenbury, Michigan, portrayed not so differently from East Grand Rapids where I grew up. My father gave me some unusual advice, one of the jewels being his admonition that, “should you choose to lie, don’t get caught.” In his eyes, getting caught in a lie showed a fundamental lack of respect for one’s audience. “Big Fat Liar” is a comedy that tackles the theme of lying form a slightly different perspective, essentially re-telling the fable of the boy who cried wolf. Its traditional theme that “the truth is not overrated,” humorously discourages lying in the first place. Not getting caught is a bit different than thou shalt not lie.
In no way was my father, who was a scientist, an educator, a bookseller, and an ethicist recommending a life of deceit. But, my father was also a realist, recognizing that we are all guilty of shading the truth a bit now and then. This can take the form of an embellishment, exaggeration, or tall tale, or most frequently be a little white lie aimed at resolving a social conflict. Where there is nothing criminal at play, the substance becomes less important than the ramifications and relationship risks sure to follow the unveiling of a lie. Did the liar think their counterpart was gullible, or would not think to question the fabrication’s veracity? Did the liar wish to be called out in an attention-seeking effort? Most significantly, if someone were caught lying about something trivial; what else might not be true? When lies are uncovered, questions and uncertainties abound, and the greatest consequence is the erosion of trust.
Without my awareness, my father was subtly teaching me social and executive skills, vital on the playground, in sports, and later in business and life. Until recently, I did not realize his lessons also speak to the big lie, or the big con. Now more than ever, we have a surfeit of these issues, with college admission scandals and the near-constant misrepresentations coming from the White House. In my mind, no one has handled the big lie better than Malcolm Gladwell did in last year’s bestselling book, Talking to Strangers (Little Brown and Company, 2019). Gladwell’s twist is to explain why perpetrators are not caught earlier, and that we have a societal imperative to default to the truth; to trust others. It seems at first, that Gladwell and my father have set forth oppositional assertions, but having reflected on both arguments, I realize the two overlap more than they diverge. Gladwell explains why a falsified narrative is put-over based on our collective need to believe. My father takes the view of what happens when this need to believe is not sufficient to keep a fabrication veiled.
At the heart of both my father’s advice and Gladwell’s observations is the understanding that people are going to lie. Both add valuable insight to the subject, but from too far of an academic distance for my taste. Never more than at this time in our history does it seem more important to simply tell the truth, to play the ball as it lays, and to build one’s reputation by sincerity and honesty. As for our willingness to accept statements of others, we also need to renew our insistence on the truth. While I understand the affirmation and acceptance that Gladwell seeks to provide, his timing is off. Our society needs to vigorously unmask the scandals and lies, acceptance represents an apology we cannot afford. As for the disrespect shown to the community, my father was dead-on. We, as a community, should not stand for being so disrespected, as lies and fake news become our daily diet on social media and cable television.
Trust is the foundation of every relationship, whether on an intimate or societal scale. Be it a child’s excuse for unfinished homework or an oval office briefing, now more than ever, we need to rely on each other, and to most fundamentally, to respect one another by telling the truth. As a dear friend’s father told him, “You can only lose your reputation once.” As sage as this is, the stewardship of public and private trust goes deeper than individual reputation loss, it is as essential as food, water, and yes, shelter.
I’ll leave it to the reader to judge whether my brain is addled, but hopefully, I’ve left no questions as to sincerity. If you have some free time, please screen “Big Fat Liar.” And, if you enjoy it as I did, I implore you to resist the mush-brained impulse of going forward with any plan to watch its sequel “Bigger Fatter Liar.” We did, and you shouldn’t.