The Art of Self Deception

by Don Hartness

“Human beings are poor examiners, subject to superstition, bias, prejudice, and a profound tendency to see what they want to see, rather than what is really there.” – M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled

Would you know evil if you saw it?

For most, evil is defined by the hideousness of an individual act. Nobody would argue that Adam Lanza’s murdering of school children in Connecticut last month was anything but an act of evil. If murdering defenseless and innocent school children is not an act of evil, what is?

Few can even imagine desiring to do such a thing, let alone looking a child in the eyes prior to shooting that child. The very thought is enough to make most shudder. It’s not just the barbaric nature, but the psychological factors involved: the willingness and ability to overcome one’s conscious, and commit such a horrifying act.

But is this the extent of evil, or is it merely a grotesque example?

Last week, I posted a quote from Scott Peck describing what he saw as the essential nature of evil. I highly recommend not only reading it, but spending a few moments to mediate on it. I want to focus on the core of this quote:

“The essential component of evil is not the absence of a sense of sin or imperfection but the unwillingness to tolerate that sense. At once and the same time, the evil are aware of their evil and desperately trying to avoid the awareness.”

It is this profound ability to overcome the awareness of evil that makes us collectively wonder if there were other mitigating circumstances involved in Lanza’s act, whether biological or conditional (such as abuse). How do we know what kind of effort this entails?

Because all of us are “desperately trying to avoid the awareness” every day.

The Art of Self-Deception

The challenge for me in writing this series was not in trying to find examples, but in sorting through them. If I were to include them all, an entire book would not be sufficient.

We lie to ourselves, and everyone around us, every day. We lie with our appearance, we cover up our inadequacies, we deny our mistakes. Everybody will admit that nobody is perfect, but everybody is also valiantly trying to cover up the fact.

Failure is a sin, even though failure is necessary before success. Hence, we embellish our accomplishments, while denying or rationalizing our failures. We lie on our resumes, we exaggerate achieved goals, and we overstate our salaries. When striving for a goal, defeat is not an option, so we lie our way through an interview, cheat our way through a test, or steal the resources necessary to meet our goals.

Poverty is failure. We must appear financially successful in every shape and form, from our dress, to our residence, to what we drive. We simultaneously idolize financial success while driving ourselves deeper into debt, just so we can keep up the charade. A hand-out is a social stigma for failure.

Financial success is part of a self-image problem that brands ugliness as a sin. Make-up, hair restoration, jewelry, small mountains of goo for sculpting and polishing, designer clothing, hair removal, diets, gym memberships, and even the accessories we carry must all project an appearance in line with the cultural standard of beauty and success found in our idolized media images.  And if we can’t achieve this image through what we buy, we’ll have surgery to fix it.

And when the strain becomes too much, we turn to pharmaceuticals to help us deal with our broken bodies, minds, and spirits…

Our self-deception is so rampant, it has even infected our vocabulary. It is as if we trying to inoculate the ugliness with verbiage. We embellish, exaggerate, fib, or bluff, instead of “lie”. We embezzle or misappropriate the funds, not “steal” them. We plagiarize instead of “cheat”. And so on.

Connecting the dots

Some (many?) may think I’m going way overboard on this.  After all, telling a little white lie, or practicing a little vanity, is nowhere near the same ballpark as murdering school children. To the skeptical, I wish to point out a few things.

First, denial is the biggest obstacle to a solution. If you can’t admit to a problem, you can’t begin to see a solution. As this series will illustrate, we are a society of denial: we cover our illnesses, our faults, our sins, our blemishes (both on the outside and the inside), our poverty, our failures, and our guilt (and this is only a partial list). How, then, are we going to examine ourselves, both individually and as a society, if we are in denial about anything even approaching the appearance of evil? How can we even have a discussion about whether our value judgments about good and evil are correct if we cannot own up to what we do?!

Second, morality is not relative. Something is either true or it is a lie. Hence, a “white” lie is only innocuous because of the circumstances.

A man lies on a résumé to gain an interview and, by embellishing his accomplishments, he gets the job. Some of us (especially his family and friends) would say “good for him”, especially in a society where lying and embellishment on resumes and interviews have become the norm.

But what if the job is for a management position? What if his inexperience leads to a wrongful accusation of a subordinate for poor performance, and he fires that subordinate. Do you think the fired employee will see his hiring as anything but injustice and a grievous evil?

Or what if the position is for a safety coordinator at a nuclear power plant? His incompetence leads to a severe oversight, causing a meltdown and poisoning the community, maybe even killing many.  Do you think the families of those killed will still see his lie as “white”?

Little white lies and the killing of school children are simply two vastly separated points on the same linear graph. Sometimes, through a series of intermediate points, they connect.

How? Our self-deception has far-reaching consequences. Not only are we strenuously deceiving ourselves, but we are quickly hostile towards anybody with the temerity (intentional or not) to uncover our self-deception. We look for scapegoats, throwing others under the bus as sacrifice for our failures. The virtuous and competent are simultaneously praised and reviled for making us look bad. Those that refuse or fail to live up to the standards of self-deception are ridiculed, scorned, insulted, and abused.

Visit a local elementary school and you’ll see it. We may never know all the truth behind Adam Lanza’s target choice. Yet, is it a stretch to suggest it was due to the horror he experienced in an elementary school as a socially awkward kid with a personality disorder?

To put it another way, was Adam just a real-life version of a kid named Jeremy?

I’m going to illustrate this concept again and again in the series ahead.  For now, I’m going to close with this: self-deception explains a key component of evil, but it does not paint the whole picture. To further illustrate, we need to turn to another aspect of evil, one that is not as easily as understood as the art of self-deception. This will be the subject of the next post.