Hard Truth

Published: February 26, 2014

By Jim Lichtman
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“You CAN’T handle the truth!”

Hands down, this is my favorite rationalization for lying offered up by Jack Nicholson in the movie, A Few Good Men.

The film tells the story of Marine Colonel Nathan R. Jessup (Nicholson) a bigoted veteran officer who not only commands respect but lives by the creed: my way or the highway.

The death of a young marine, the result of a hazing incident, has two men in Jessup’s company on trial for murder. Lt. (j.g.) Kaffee, a bright, but overly confident Navy lawyer, played by Tom Cruise, is skilled at negotiating his clients into a plea bargain. Jessup is skilled at side-stepping the rules to get what he wants. The moment of crisis scene comes when the two are brought together in a final confrontation.

Pressing for the truth, Kaffee is pushing every button in can to get Jessup to admit the truth: that the Marine colonel ordered the hazing that led to the marine’s death.

“You want answers,” Jessup barks.

“I want the truth!” Kaffee demands.

“You CAN’T handle the truth!” Jessup defiantly says.

It’s a purposeful and powerful moment that grabs your attention. It’s also another example of how individuals so easily rationalize the end-justifies-the-means to get the results they want. Jessup believes that ordering the two soldiers to terrorize the seemingly slacker marine is necessary so that the questionable marine will understand that soldiers need to be prepared for any danger the enemy might throw at them.

Contrary to Jessup’s belief, a Vanity Fair/CBS News poll (Feb. 3), found that “57 percent of Americans say they CAN handle the truth and want to hear it straight while 42 percent say they have been in a situation in which they would have preferred it if someone had lied to them.” However, “Sixty-two percent of Americans with no degrees say one should always tell the truth. Only 45 percent of college grads agree with that, and just 35 percent of post-grads.”

Apparently, according to the poll, the more education you have, the more inclined you are to equivocate.

So, does it hold that successful people do what they have to do in order to win, even if others consider it cheating?

That’s the question I asked high school students a few years ago. 80 percent said, “Yes!”

“The question isn’t whether occasional liars and cheats sometimes get away with dishonesty,” ethicist Michael Josephson writes, “we all have to agree with this. The question is whether you believe people can succeed if they are not willing to lie or cheat.

“Those who believe lying and cheating have become necessities are cynics,” Josephson adds. “This is important because cynics, regardless of their age, are far more likely to lie and cheat in both their personal and work lives. The correlation between cynicism and age is striking. Only 11% of people over 40 are cynics compared to 47% of youngsters 17 and under and 35% of those 18-24 (19% of those 25-40 are cynics).

“This turns out to be a big deal because cynicism is a powerful predictor of conduct,” Josephson says. “People who believe lying and cheating are a necessary part of success are nearly four times as likely to deceive their boss (31% v. 8%), three times more likely to inflate an insurance (6% vs. 2%) or expense claim (13% v. 4%), or lie to a customer (22% vs. 7%). They are also one-and-a half-times more likely to cheat on their taxes (20% vs. 13%).

“Cynicism is a toxic condition, but the antidote isn’t just hopeful optimism; it’s hard truth.

“Sometimes cheaters do prosper and sometimes it’s harder to succeed with integrity,” Josephson adds, “but the latter is always possible.”

Josephson offers Six Rules of Credibility – things to consider before rationalizing that a boss, co-worker, friend or family member can’t handle the truth –

1. Where trust is truly important there are no little lies. Any and every falsehood demonstrates a willingness to deceive and inspires the doubt: “What else have you lied to me about?” Just like tiny germs can cause deadly infections, little lies can kill credibility.

2. Excuses and justifications for lying are much more persuasive to the liar than the person lied to.

3. Every undiscovered lie is like a hidden land mine ready to explode a reputation or destroy credibility.

4. Honesty and forthrightness don’t always pay, but dishonesty and concealment always cost. Nothing good may come of admitting wrongdoing, but it gets a lot worse when you don’t.

5. Lies breed like rabbits. Once you start lying, it takes an ever-growing bodyguard of new lies to protect the old ones.

6. You can’t lie to a liar or cheat a cheater without becoming a liar or cheater. If you “fight fire with fire,” all you’ll get in the end are the ashes of your own reputation.

All of us face pressure. It’s part of life. How we deal with that pressure will determine whether we choose to be a person of character or rationalization.

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