Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Book Review: Lying

    I like to be challenged.  People might not think that about me, because I have a strong inclination to resist change and my suspicion of fixing things that don’t appear to be broken is quite deep.  But it’s true.  I like to be challenged.  I think that’s why I found myself genuinely enjoying reading Nietzsche (for fun, not for a class or something).  And I’m sure it’s why I developed a fondness for the forthright and provocative works of Christopher Hitchens, Penn Jillette, and Sam Harris.  I first encountered Harris through various web videos of debates and speeches, often on the subject of religion and the rejection thereof.  But by the time I found him, that was no longer a challenging subject for me.  He may have helped me find better ways of saying what I meant, but I had already come to terms with my lack of belief in the supernatural.  Where he began to challenge me was in his book The Moral Landscape.  In my gut, I’d never felt right about some of the moral relativism that my 80s-raised mind wanted so much to hold on to.  Something didn’t sit right when it came to justifying barbaric acts in the name of cultural sensitivity, standing silent when I knew in my very bones that something evil was afoot.  And with The Moral Landscape, Harris challenged my thinking, and helped me forge that discomfort into a more coherent and I hope productive way of looking at the world.

    With Lying, Sam Harris has challenged me once again.  As a general thing, I consider myself an honest person.  I suppose most people do, but I have a long standing tendency to call it as I see it (not necessarily as it is) and to play as fair as I can with folks.  Admittedly, I’ve often used silence as a means of avoiding saying truths that might put me in socially awkward positions.  But generally, I’ve tried to be an honest person.  Or so I thought.  Reading Lying, I see that, while on a spectrum, I might be on the honest side of the middle, I still perpetuate our culture of lies.  I’m not a disciplined person.  I’m not going to lie here and say that I will be embracing a strictly and more thoughtfully honest life from this point forward.  It’s not that I don’t think it’s possible (though it would be difficult as I did grow up Catholic, where honestly, especially with oneself, is not generally well received or encouraged).  It’s that I know myself well enough to know that my commitment to being more thoughtful and honest will not be as deep and conscientious as it should be.  Still, the book challenges me to be a better person, and to think more about the damage that lies, even so called ‘white lies’ can do.  I do think that going forward, I will be more careful about telling the truth, more apt to avoid even those socially lubricating fabrications.

    The idea of living in an honest society, a conscientiously honest and straight-forward world, absolutely appeals to me.  And the goal Harris seems to have of shifting our cultural mindset in that direction is an honorable and important one.  Lying seems like the sort of book that should be read by as many people as possible, but probably won't be read by those who could be most served by it (like The Moral Landscape).  Being in business, I can see the need for this book in the business community.  But the medical, governmental, educational, and other arenas could all use a healthy dose of self-reflection and positive reinforcement of honest speech and behavior.

    The book, originally an e-book, now comes in a hardcover edition which features a Q&A between Sam Harris and Ronald A. Howard, a man who was a huge inspiration in Harris’s own quest to lead an honest life.  The two discuss various aspects of lies and truths, and the potential pitfalls and benefits.  In addition, there are questions from readers of the e-book with responses by Harris.  The book itself is quite short (42 pages), with the appendixes bringing it up to 95 pages, plus a few more pages of notes.  But while the book is short, I think there's a lot to think about within its pages.  Again, coming from the business world, this is a heck of a lot more useful and important than something like the oft lauded Who Moved My Cheese.  Whatever your career or lifestyle, I would recommend taking this challenge.  Read Lying, and think more about the truth and lies in your life, how they effect you, the ones you love, and society in general.

Author: Sam Harris
Publisher: Four Elephants Press
ISBN: 978-1-9400-5100-0

-Matthew J. Constantine

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