The Benevolent Lie

The scout master of Troop Five in Lubbock, Texas was an old fireman named Mose Hood. He had been my father’s scout master back in the 1920’s, and then mine as a young 12 year old lad in 1953. Mose was the local first aid guru and taught all the advanced first aid classes for the Red Cross, trained the fire department and local ambulance personnel. All of his scouts were required to take the advanced course. The first two merit badges earned were first aid and safety. We were prepared to be called up to join rescue squads in case of local catastrophes such as tornadoes.

When treating for shock, we were taught to speak calmly, yet firmly, reassuring the patient he would be okay. Even if we were certain he would not make it to the hospital, quietly let him know things would work out—give the patient a sense of hope.

As a young man working at the family funeral home making ambulance calls, I often had the opportunity to apply that lesson. As a young commander of troops in combat, that lesson served me, and wounded soldiers, well. It was in that environment I coined the term “benevolent lie”. In certain circumstances, we should instill a sense of hope to a wounded, frightened trooper fighting for his life. To do otherwise would be inhumane, downright cruel. You must tell them the benevolent lie.

Now with a modicum of wisdom acquired through experience, I observe the line between the benevolent and malevolent too often becomes blurred. At what point does the humane service-giving intent drift into the realm of self service? The political scene has become corrupt with lies spewed from pundits on both sides of the spectrum. Each side claims to have cornered the market on TRUTH.

American philosopher, Eric Hoffer refers to passionate adherents of ideologies as “true believers” who will buy into the notion that any statement which promotes the cause is justified, and therefore serves the greater good. Those who knowingly serve up untruths to promote their own position for the sake of power are simply dishonest, narcissistic scoundrels. In either case they couch their narrative in such a light as to convince listeners they have their best interests at heart—their version of the benevolent lie. Masters of creating such lies attract followers who fall under the spell of the cultish message, become true believers, ascribe credence to the lie, and become slaves to it. Common sense and good judgement are cast aside for the sake of the cause.

This phenomenon occurs in religious settings. Clerics take advantage of the spiritual fragility of their flock to infect them with a bastardized version of the truth. Jim Jones of Jonestown fame led his cult to “drink the Kool-Aid” and die for the cause. David Koresh of the Branch Davidians led his disciples to perish in a fiery ending near Waco, Texas. But we find abuse of the spiritually needy in any mainstream religion or denomination. Too often it is the ordained clergy that promulgates the abuse. In serving the needs of vulnerable congregants, they also fill their own need to wield spiritual power, exhibiting astonishing hubris.

Morally bankrupt leaders promote the narrative for the benefit of their followers, a benevolent lie. As they accrue more influence and power the narrative evolves into the malevolent lie with malicious intent. A national leader announced from the floor of our nation’s capitol that a political opponent had not paid taxes for ten years. This was later shown to be untrue, but the dispersion was already out there and doubt was cast. Later that politician was asked if he had known the charges were untrue. He replied that of course he knew, but it worked. His opponent had lost the election. To him, his was a benevolent lie. In my view he had spun a contemptable, malevolent lie. As Americans, we are lesser served by his ilk regardless of political brand: party, liberal, conservative, moderate, independent, or otherwise.

Political correctness should be called into question at this point. No longer can we use certain words without risking attacks of racism, sexism, or other isms. How can we discuss these issues openly when the very use of the words themselves cast us into a despicable category. Certainly such words should not be used to deride a race, religion, or group of people, but we need to have the discussion for the sake of enlightenment, of understanding the nature of the issues. In an effort to not offend the sensibilities of certain groups, we must ignore or deny the offense itself. Sticking one’s head in the sand to avoid truth is initially an avoidance meant to not do harm, a benevolent lie by omission, but in fact becomes harmful to us all and thus a malevolent lie.

As responsible adults we must set aside silly notions of false sensibilities and a need for external thinking by others. We must come together as independent thinkers with the ability to accept each other as equals, though different. None of us will agree on every issue, nor should we, but we can come together with respect for other perspectives. What the heck, we might learn a thing or two from a healthy exchange of ideas, and be richer for it. We need to hold all in authority accountable be it politics, religion, or otherwise and not be quick to jump on a cause oriented bandwagon.

Finally we need to inform ourselves fully by accessing information from a variety of sources and questioning each source thoroughly. Divorce ourselves from the undue influence of outside organizations be they political or religious. Corrupt politicians demean and stain the institutions of government, but cannot corrupt the American Ideal which is beyond their reach. Religious hucksters create spiritual havoc and cast stains upon the institution of church, but cannot touch the skirts of God with their flim-flam. The best protection against a malevolent lie is solid information filtered through the prism of intellectual integrity, common sense and good judgement.