Forgive me, won’t you, if I say that mendacity is something I know more than a little about? I of course agree that the proclamation is not at first blush the sort of quality one would normally rush to embrace. Nonetheless the fact of the matter is that in my business I heard lies. I won’t say it was the stock of my daily commerce but the possibility of lying was certainly something to which I was bound to be alive if I were to perform to par.
Some clients were of the mistaken opinion that if they could convince me of the truth of their story then they were home-free. Little did they appreciate the resourcefulness and design of either opposing Counsel or Her Majesty’s Prosecutor. I flatter myself to conclude that my front-line education taught me something about this common human perplexity (whether the outright pernicious act of commission or the plausibly less egregious act of omission). It was for example alarmingly routine for the identical whopper to be advanced by any number of people no matter what the background, education or profession of the person. Lying is singularly indiscriminate in that respect. Nor was there assured to be the cushion of any relieving exoneration such as drunkenness, mental instability or personal distress. In fact the best liars are paradoxically those who are in control of themselves or who at least give the impression of being so.
Like most people I haven’t any particular credential when it comes to recognizing a lie when I hear it. Granted my professional training at least taught me to analyze a chain of events with reasoned scrutiny and to observe the logic (or lack of it) in what was being told to me. But frankly it requires not much more than plodding patience to unearth the buried kernels of truth in any cultivation howsoever convoluted or histrionic. Certainly a bit of disinfecting sunshine upon the matter helps resolve the accuracy of the details but essentially candour is like anything else in life – simple and palpable – and as such readily discernible. I won’t suggest that perceiving a lie is instinctive, that would be asking far too much of Nature. Besides I don’t think that our visceral responses, even if the product of millennia of evolution, were ever calculated to discern perfidy (which is far too abstract and detached to warrant the attention of our so-called “baser instincts”). But if one is prepared to get off the couch intellectually and to examine (and perhaps dissect) the synapses of the account which one is being told, it usually isn’t long before the truth will out. It does though impose a degree of assiduity, one which is not always characteristically motivated by self-interest and is therefore sometimes of remote appeal.
Oddly the greater impediment to the unfolding of either invention or deception is not the baring of the ruse but rather the natural resistance we have to the truth. The truth after all can be so horridly inconvenient for so many reasons. We all know what a cloak of embarrassment the truth can be, not to mention a positive damper on an otherwise perfectly entertaining tale. Truth as well often has the nasty corollary of demanding a sequel of accommodation, essentially doing or saying something to “correct” the little distortions, maybe even having to crawl or suffer some other less than dignified remedy. Small wonder the perpetuation of the myth is so much more preferable at least in the short run. Yet while the sting of a lie may initially appear to be an irritating folly it may later prove to have the repercussions of a fatal infection. A lie can quickly become an exercise like extinguishing a camp fire with jet fuel.
I acknowledge that I am dancing around the subject and likely becoming tedious as a result. It is naturally impossible for me to spice the philosophic reflection with the details of my personal professional experiences, but I may at least draw upon those private reminiscences to construct a formula deduced from them. Most importantly is my conclusion that honesty is indeed the best policy, trite I know but nonetheless irrefutable. To mess with the truth is to tangle with a formidable cause. Convincing a liar of the imperative of truth is understandably a tortuous decision. It doesn’t however always involve the blunt assertion of a lie, rather – and perhaps more ambitiously – the promotion of the truth as a key to resolution. In these circumstances pretending to ignore the so-called “elephant in the room” may be the most productive course for it affords the opportunity to engage temporarily in a theoretical discussion of the truth for purposes of illustrating its value. I am reminded of a anecdote related to me by a Judge from Nova Scotia who told me that his father (also a lawyer) used to defend rum-runners in Cape Breton. One day one of the lawyer’s notoriously criminal clients arrived and sat down in his office. The lawyer asked, “What’s your story?” to which the client replied, “That’s what I’m paying you for!” This apocryphal tale illustrates what is frequently the presumption in the circumstances; namely, that we should do everything possible to confound the truth to avoid the consequences. This in my opinion is a mistaken enterprise. Quite apart from the well recognized judicial discretion arising from the confession of guilt and the cooperation with the Court and its officers, I believe there is far greater personal advantage to be obtained by addressing the facts head-on. This is however a matter of appraisal by each individual. To my knowledge it is the practice of most defence counsel never to ask a client directly whether he or she is telling the truth; the decision rather is only how to plead and to canvass the ramifications of doing so (even though the choice may be driven by the private assessment of veracity).
The importance of truthfulness extends well beyond the forum of conventional criminality and outside the realm of strict acuity. Indeed too often the initial motivation to lie is spirited by what is perceived to be an inconsequential or negligible obstruction in the otherwise high road of one’s conduct. One must not however be guided by compromise of far greater lofty principles than the current path beneath one’s feet. It will turn out to be a wager of Pyrrhic proportions and inestimable portent. In the end there can be no price too great to avoid sullying one’s name though the distraction comes at a cost.