In light of the recent controversy over the “mistruths and possible embellishments” uttered and written by GOP presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson, Professor of Religious Studies Michael Dobkowski offered his comments in an opinion piece published in the Democrat and Chronicle. The article, “The Struggle Between Truth Telling and Lying,” offered an alternative explanation for the reason people are so “bothered” by Carson’s statements.
“Dr. Carson’s behavior provides us a hard mirror into our own tendencies to exaggerate and lie and we don’t like what we see,” Dobkowski writes. The article goes on to argue that deception seems to be “normal and predictable,” and that most are willing to deceive others or ourselves when there is little chance of getting caught.
“We don’t lie all the time, but we do it enough not to be shocked by the possible misstatements and exaggerations of Dr. Carson… So why the criticism of Dr. Carson that seem so disproportionate to the transgression?” Dobkowski questioned.
A member of the faculty since 1976, Dobkowski is an expert on genocide, terrorism and the Holocaust. He holds bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from New York University. A prolific author, he has written “The Tarnished Dream: The Basis of American Anti-Semitism,” “The Politics of Indifference: Documentary History of Holocaust Victims in America” and “Jewish American Voluntary Organizations.” He is the co-author of “Nuclear Weapons, Nuclear States & Terrorism,” “On the Edge of Scarcity,” and “The Nuclear Predicament: Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century.” He has also co-written other volumes on the Holocaust and genocide
During the fall of 2011, Dobkowski served as a visiting professor at Nazareth College, where he taught Jewish thought, the history and implications of the Holocaust, the American Jewish experience, and the history of anti-Semitism.
He has participated five times in the Goldner Holocaust Symposium at Wroxton College in England, most recently in 2010, and was a fellow at the Institute for the Teaching of the Post-Biblical Foundations of Western Civilization at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He received the New York University Ferdinand Czernin Prize in History and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
The full article follows.
Democrat and Chronicle
The struggle between truth telling and lying
Michael Dobkowski – Nov. 28, 2015
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “Truth is beautiful, without doubt; but so are lies.”
This paradoxical insight has helped me make some sense of the flap over the mistruths and possible embellishments uttered and written by the accomplished pediatric surgeon and presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson. He claims to have been offered a scholarship at West Point even though they don’t technically give out scholarships. He also described himself as a violent youth who attempted attacks on his mother and a relative but these claims have been difficult to corroborate.
Why are the press and apparently many people bothered by these alleged exaggerations and possible half-truths?
I understand the conventional explanations that focus on the charged political environment, the desire by some to discredit opposition candidates, especially those who espouse conservative views, the political circus of gotcha moments that drive news cycles and the like. I think there may be something deeper going on, however, that goes to the heart of the honesty of human beings. Dr. Carson’s behavior provides us a hard mirror into our own tendencies to exaggerate and lie and we don’t like what we see.
I am struck by the self-righteous tone of many of the self-righteous commentators and writers who have decried his possible exaggerations. The great struggle between principled truth telling and lying represents a deep, strong current in our moral and religious traditions.
It turns out that deception and exaggeration are not acts that only bad people do. Most of us are ordinary and habitual deceivers. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely in The Honest Truth about Dishonesty demonstrates that most of us will act dishonestly if wrongdoing is easy enough and with few consequences. We will lie or cheat up to the level that allows us to maintain our self-image as essentially honest people. And lying can be quite banal, whether it is about our weight, that game-winning shot in high school or our SAT scores, or dating scores.
Under normal circumstances when the chance of getting caught is slim, most are willing to deceive others or ourselves without fear of living with a tortured conscience. In fact, there are some professions that are essentially based on illusion and a loose definition of truth, telling us what we want to hear or what they want us to hear.
Without intending to offend, I might mention salespeople, advertisers, lawyers, actors, writers and politicians. I might even include academics, journalists and social commentators following a philosophical insight that “all truths are half-truths.”
I am not saying that lying is good but rather that deception seems to be normal and predictable. We employ it to boost our self-confidence, to gain a sense of control over others, to help us deal with insecurities, to help mediate stress, to help numb the pain of the harsh realities of life. When taken to an extreme and when it becomes pathological it can do great harm to the individual, to others and to the fabric of society. But there are also times when lying is preferable to the truth as when we tell “small” lies to spare friends or children from bad news.
We don’t lie all the time, but we do it enough not to be shocked by the possible misstatements and exaggerations of Dr. Carson. So why the criticism of Dr. Carson that seem so disproportionate to the transgression? Aside from the obvious political motivations and double standards referenced earlier, it may just be that this case touched a raw nerve and reminded us of our true natures, of our propensity to embellish, even lie.
Dr. Carson reminded us of the many tall tales in our own lives and that the face in the mirror may be ours.
Michael Dobkowski is a professor of religious studies, Hobart and William Smith Colleges