Thursday, March 15, 2012

What’s the difference between lying and make believe?

I say a lot of things that aren’t true. For example, I wouldn’t really prefer drinking laundry detergent to Diet Pepsi. But recently, a friend of mine introduced me as “Jez, the source of all lies,” and that got me thinking. Where is the line between a joke and a lie?

Why are you even thinking about this?

Once upon a time, when I were just a lad, I was in the next door neighbor’ s back garden. They had a climbing frame which they were giving us, and I was there for a test drive. As I climbed up on it, the neighbor lady (who was a child psychologist) was chatting to me about something or other. On my way down, she waited until I was on the bottom rung of the ladder, and then asked me the question in the title of the post. I lost myself in thought so rapidly that I fell off the frame and broke my arm, which then took my mind off lying fairly rapidly.

Nowadays there are three kinds of falsehoods I enjoy sharing, but I never considered lies. I’ve been including common-or-garden sarcasm into my repertoire for a while now, and it always makes me feel a bit smug that I saw the opportunity. I also enjoy exaggeration for comic effect, which I think I probably learned from the television.

More recently, I’ve been trying out statements that have no relation to the truth, like claiming that some bottles had spiders living in them, or that I taught Ron Paul to read. I don’t know if there’s a name for this kind of humor, but it’s a way for me to entertain myself using the power of make believe.

Is it really lying?

As I see it, a lie has to have two properties:

  1. It is false.
  2. The intent is for the listener to believe that it’s true – usually in order to give some advantage to the liar.

Sarcasm is clearly marked as falsehood by tone of voice and its absurdity, so I don’t think it meets the second criterion. Similarly for the exaggeration – no-one really believes that Midori has so many shoes we needed to build an extension to the house for more than a second.

But the absurd statements? I’m not expecting to convince anyone, but I am amused by the thought that someone might believe that I’m from Tennessee, or that I was a mail-order groom, or that I first met my friends by selling them illicit substances. Those few seconds of watching facial expressions as they parse the sentence and think “could he be… no, that’s not possible” make me giggle on the inside. So I suppose those really are lies. Sort of.

What do you think? What is it that pushes an untruth into the realm of lies? Am I missing something? Did a philosopher that I’ve heard of but never read have a theory about this?

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