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Exploring the bare difference between a truth and a lie

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

“Kill one man, and you’re a murderer. Kill millions, and you are a conqueror. Kill them all, and you are a god.”

The French biologist and philosopher Jean Rostand (1894-1977) was led to that bleak view of greatness by sinister events in Europe in the 1930s. Forty years later, the line was picked up by filmmaker Kihachi Okamoto, who used it in his 1967 black comedy “Satsujinkyo Jidai” (“The Age of Assassins”).

Josei Seven magazine borrows it from the film and alters the context — from killing to lying. Its adaptation goes, “Lie to your husband or friend (or mother or teacher) and you’re a liar. Lie to the country and you’re a hero.”

It’s a strained analogy. Few would dispute that politics is clogged with lies. What’s controversial, in the ongoing swirl of scandals implicating the government and bureaucracy in cronyism, cover-ups, document-tampering and so on, is not whether lying or truth-telling prevails, but over who precisely the liars are.

Whoever they are, few regard them as heroes — though a poll last month by the business daily Nikkei shows rising support for the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, suggesting a measure of tolerance for lying in high places. Perhaps it’s just weariness.

With “moral education” as of this spring part of the official elementary school curriculum — “official” meaning subject to government oversight — the question naturally arises: What does “moral” mean?

What does it mean to be good? Unanimity eludes, but we approach it at least in praising honesty. Practice aside, the disapproval of lying is all but universal.

“Always tell the truth,” we are taught as children, and teach our children in turn. “Never lie.”

Probably the first twinge of conscience most children feel is over a lie. Even very little kids lying their way out of trouble do so sheepishly, with a telltale blush or lowering of the eyes. The barefaced liar seems a particularly sinister figure. A small child who lies easily is apt to inspire somber forebodings.

Josei Seven doesn’t specifically mention moral education, but the reader can’t help being aware of it as the background to the question it raises, which is: In a world so overgrown with lies and deception, how can we honestly teach our children to be honest?

Lying is unique among the vices in that, unlike thievery, say, or sexual and power harassment, everybody does it. Society could scarcely function otherwise. Social life would be impossible. We couldn’t bear to hear what our friends really think of us. Naked honesty stripped of the veiling lie would rouse us to hatred and self-hatred. If businesses were completely open and completely honest, no one would buy anything. Politics held to standards of perfect honesty would paralyze itself.

Everybody knows that. What nobody knows is precisely where to draw the line between acceptable lying and vicious lying. The line grows more obscure, rather than less, with the passage of time, and nothing has obscured it more, two contributors to Josei Seven’s package agree, than life on the internet.

The two are author Akiko Shimoju, 82, and Buddhist priest-cum-author Sokyu Genyu, 62. Each stresses a different aspect of life online: Shimoju its “peer pressure,” Genyu abstraction. People meet, but not face to face. Face-to-face contact, in Genyu’s view, keeps us at least minimally honest. Without it, “I think,” he says, “that the good latent in each of us gradually oozes out.” Crime, he says, is more rampant online than off. And government procedures, he adds, referring to the document-tampering and coverup allegations dogging the Abe administration, are largely handled online.

“In order to be sincere and not tell lies,” writes Shimoju, “we need to recover the quality of aloneness.” The word she uses is kodoku, whose meaning ranges from solitary introspection to morbid isolation.

Young people, she says, take it in its purely negative sense and recoil from it, cheating themselves, in her view, of one of life’s most enriching experiences and enslaving themselves to peer pressure. Reflexively “liking” something because 10,000 people before you have “liked” it is, she says, a form of lying that is innocent in the sense of not malicious but less so — “scary,” she says — in that it undermines the very concept of truth.

Which brings us, inevitably, to “post-truth” and its concomitant, “fake news.” Who knows, anymore, what’s fake and what’s news, or whether a thing is true because it actually happened or because somebody said it did?

“There’s no escaping it — the world is full of lies,” said the priest Yoshida Kenko (1284-1350) in the “Tsurezuregusa” (“Grasses of Idleness”).

He seems oddly prescient when he writes, “People tend to exaggerate even when relating things they have actually witnessed, but when months or years have intervened, and the place is remote, they are all the more prone to invent whatever tales suit their fancies, and, when these have been written down, fictions are accepted as fact.”

“Is it because the truth is so boring,” asks Kenko, “that most stories one hears are false?” Maybe that’s it. Interesting, given his priestly vocation, that his charming little essay includes no ringing defense of truth. Why bother with truth anyway, if a lie is what suits our purposes? If your lie upsets me, I’ll counter with a lie of my own, and may the more inventive, or more dogged, liar win.

Genyu, like Kenko a literary priest, is less sanguine. His era has taught him lessons Kenko never had to learn. The “fake news” generated by Japan’s current scandals reminds him of something within living memory.

“Power expands when people aren’t looking,” he says, “and then is protected by lies and document-tampering. Wartime propaganda was very much like that.”

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”