Essay on the Novel On Lying by Sissela Bok

Essay on the Novel On Lying by Sissela Bok

The most dangerous and damaging weapon in society is not a blunt object or automatic firearm; but rather its origin lies within each and every one of us. When they are released into the world they have the potential to form daggers that penetrate straight to the heart, even though one may not realize it until much later. Lies are the source of immeasurable pain, corruption, crime and even injustice. Sissela Bok’s “On Lying,” examines the dangers that lies inflict on society. While the majority of the time lying is reprehensible, there is always an exception to every rule. Lies that are spoken with intention to cause harm are malicious and evil, where as certain situations require lying .

Sissela Bok begins with an allusion to Shakespeare’s Othello, stating, “Even Othello, whom few would have dared to try and subdue by force, could be brought to destroy himself and Desdemona through falsehood.” Lies have the potential to destroy anything that cross their path. She goes on to state, “…the deceit made them unable to make choices for themselves according to the most adequate information available, unable to act as they would have wanted to act had they known all along.” (Bok, 586) In Othello, many characters fall victim to the detrimental outcome of lies, causing them to commit acts outside their normal persona. Shakespeare wrote his most evil character, Iago, as if he is a sociopath; unable to form affectionate relationships or feel guilt for his treacherous behavior. Othello’s developing jealousy towards Desdimona is the driving force of the play. Solely based on Iago’s lies, the strength of Othello’s emotions turns him insane with rage, and he loses all ability to see reason and reality. Iago slowly corrupts Othello’s mind with false statements that his wife is committing adultery. Iago declares, “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on; that cuckold lives in bliss who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger; But, O, what damned minutes tells he o'er who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!” (3.3.165-170) This speech is famous for the cunning of its psychological destructiveness. The meat that the monster feeds on is a person's heart, which it eats away. The green-eyed monster is insatiable, and consuming to the point that the jealous person is never at peace. Iago manipulates Othello to go from suspicion to anger, without pausing to see if the suspicion has any basis in fact. When Othello is giving his death speech he says he should be spoken of as "one not easily jealous, but being wrought Perplex'd in the extreme" (5.2.345-346). This statement further proves Bok’s statement that lies cause individuals to act in ways they normally would not. Bok writes, “But deceit controls more subtly, for it works on belief as well as action.” (Bok, 585) Because Othello’s actions and thoughts are fueled only on Iago’s skillful lies, he was forced to behave and act in ways that were completely out of character.

Iago fools everyone in the play into believing he's honest. No one even suspects him of such extreme evil. He proves that evil intentions can be masked behind a facade of honesty. An example of this can be seen when Bok writes, “Psychological barriers wear down; lies seem more necessary, less reprehensible; the ability to make moral distinctions can coarsen; the liar’s perception of his chances of being caught may warp.” (Bok 589.) The difficulty to judge true from false is a human dilemma that we continually face. In Othello's case, the situation proves fatal. Shakespeare shows the problem and consequences of trusting someone whose mask of honesty is perfect, almost to the very last . The character of Iago portrays everything evil in which Bok discusses. In her opening paragraph, Sissela Bok proclaims that deceit “can coerce people into acting against their will.” (Bok 585.) This is seen through Iago’s manipulation of the otherwise stable Othello.

Lies spoken with the intention to cause harm are undoubtedly malicious. Human beings are highly emotional creatures. We base many of our decisions on feelings rather than simply intellect. The general population does not consist of sociopaths; no one wishes to be the bearer of bad news or the cause of intentional harm. Sissela Bok writes, “Imagine a society, no matter how ideal in other respects, where word and gesture could never be counted upon.” Society would ultimately collapse if this were the case, however, what if quite the opposite was reality. What if truth was all that we knew and language was completely devoid of lying? At first it may sound utopian to some, but does one really wish to know ALL aspects of the truth? Consider the 2009 film, “The Invention of Lying,” starring Ricky Gervais and Jennifer Garner. The film takes place in a town where lying has never existed and people only speak the raw, absolute truth. Gervais plays character Mark Bellison, an unsuccessful writer whom is constantly referred to as a “fat loser” throughout his existence. He somehow manages to get a date with Anna McDoogles (played by Jennifer Garner) who immediately tells him that she is not attracted to him and his financial situation is pathetic. During their date Anna’s mother calls to check in, Anna goes on to state how repulsive Mark is and that she thinks he is a loser, right in front of Mark. If this were the normal way to communicate, some people probably wouldn’t leave their houses! The fact of the matter is, no one wants their feelings to be hurt or feel inadequate. Women especially have tendencies to over-analyze why a particular object of ones affection isn’t calling or showing interest in them. If said male object told the woman to her face that he was not attracted to her and thought she was a loser, the woman would be quite hurt, to say the least. Times like these require “little white lies” or “sugar coating”, simply to not destroy ones spirit. It would seem that the absolute truth in this situation is much more malicious and detrimental to ones health than lying .

The film “Liar Liar” also portrays a character in which he is only able to utter the complete truth. One famous scene occurs when the main character, played by Jim Carrey, enters a packed elevator and upon his exit the viewer sees disgusted looks on all the patrons faces; to which Jim Carrey screams, “it was me!” An obvious allusion to the fact that it was he who passed gas within the close confines. Do people really wish to know these things? I think not. Bok writes, “Everyone depends on deception to avoid hurting the feelings of others. Some use it much more consciously to manipulate and gain ascendancy.” (586) It is the liar in these situations that should be seen as the benevolent emotion protector, for they have to take on the burden of responsibility to consciously avert a possible feelings crisis. The reason such absolute honest societies are depicted as the basis for Hollywood films are because they are so ridiculous and unfounded; sometimes we need to be lied to.

Lying is deemed morally and ethically wrong especially for ones personal gain. This is unarguable. Like protecting others feelings from the malicious truth, there are times when lies are a necessary way of ones survival. Independent of personal gains or others feelings; one may have a profession in which false truths are mandatory . Regardless of right or wrong, society has created and perpetuated the need for these careers. Bok states, “Confidence in public officials and in professionals has been seriously eroded. This, in turn, is a most natural response to the uncovering of practices of deceit for high-sounding aims...The practices engendering such distrust were entered upon, not just by the officials now so familiar to us, but by countless others.. Each time for a reason that seemed overriding.” (Bok 590 ). It is common knowledge that lying to leverage ones assets or position at the sake of others is morally wrong. Bok mentions “national security” in her essay, which was set up when George W. Bush was in office. What this man did to our country and its citizens for the sake of his personal motives is grotesque. There is endless scrutinization to not only public officials and government but also businesses. We expect individuals to uphold a strict moral and ethical code and refrain from telling lies, however, there are entire professions dedicated to the art of lying. What sort of paradoxical society lobbies for honesty, yet a criminal defense attorney with a law degree from a prestigious university is hailed as impressive. These individuals study to not only manipulate the law, but to defend individuals that they most likely know have committed a crime, resulting in lying to the court and public. The better the liar, the more money they will get paid. Public relations specialists are hired when the public sees companies or public figures in a bad light. It is their job to create statements defending the organization or individual and make them appear remorseful and gain sympathy through the media. It is a publicists job to “bend the truth” in order to save their clients. Marketing is another occupation where ones verbal gymnastics will prove successful. Granted there is truths in advertising laws that must be abide by, but most advertising is based on manipulating truths to make ones product or service better than others. If truth was the sole reason for existence, Pepsi may as well change its slogan to “When Coke isn’t available .”
Sissela Bok’s depiction of deceptive messages and the harms they cause is insightful and proves many valid concepts. Intended manipulation and deceit stems from pure evil. Those that use these weapons as ammunition to distort others perceptions or as a means to benefit themselves are truly reprehensible. Deception and betrayal speak volumes about ones character. However, there are the rare times when the truth can be more malicious than omitting certain aspects of reality. Phrasing messages in a fashion to protect ones feelings isn’t necessarily what we want, rather it is what we need. Just as lies can destruct the very core that makes us human, it is that core that occasionally needs protection by ways that the truth would only further damage. For some, they have made a living off of telling false truths; lawyers are notorious for this. Society places an extensive amount of blame and punishment on lying, yet paradoxically perpetuates careers that are based on them. The contrast between the necessity and malice of lies will forever be rooted in a dichotomy of good and evil .


Bok, Sissela. "On Lying." Occasions For Writing (2008): 585-90. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Othello. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. Print.