The message of the movie The Invention of Lying, according to the NYT:
A world without lying is also one without art. … Lying becomes a means to transcendence, an escape from the quotidian, from our oppressive literal-mindedness, from our brute selves. … The truth doesn’t just hurt — sometimes it’s also degrading, and not just for the characters. The movie encourages our inner bully, coaxing it out for giggles.
Notice: a movie dedicated to the idea that lies are better than truth induced little outrage or opposition! Reviewers’ main complaint was just that it didn’t stay funny long enough. Can anyone make a similarly compelling movie dedicated to the opposite claim, that truth is better than lies? If not, doesn’t that count as evidence that most people do in fact accept that lies are better?
The movie is set in an alternate Earth where people not only never lie, they go out of their way to tell truths others want to know, even when that makes the speaker look bad. This is far from a stable social equilibrium – most any weak tendency to more often repeat successful behavior would quickly lead away from this. But let’s set that issue aside to consider the movie’s message.
In this world people are selfish, shallow, cynical, base, and rude. They explicitly think in terms of evolutionary motives; men want sex with pretty women, while women want money and hansome good-gene sex partners, etc. People act on these beliefs, which makes them dull, unhappy, and emotionally flat:
The undressed, undeceptive, utterly honest world is no Eden: flat lighting, earth tones, beige bachelor flops, blank-walled offices, bland daytime barrooms.
A man notices that he can gain by lying, first to avoid being evicted. Then he tries to lie to bed a pretty woman, but finds he just doesn’t want this. Apparently lying induces altruism, as he spends his time telling lies to make various random strangers like themselves better and be more entertained. He also lies to get cash and fame, but that is apparently all right in pursuit of a woman – the main thing he likes about her is that she is “out of his league” pretty. But he refuses to lie to her about why she should like him.
He invents God and heaven, lies big and bright enough to make the whole world honestly happy. A headline reads: “Finally a reason to be good.” The man finally convinces the woman to focus less on his looks; “he’s smart funny kind loving, makes me feel special, makes me happy.” She learns to lie to please, and see the best in people.
So the movie’s thesis is that to be happy, we must self-deceive and embrace incorrect but inspiring far-view ideals, such love, friendship, altruism, laughter, art, and fiction. This thesis affirms a core ideal we seem desperate to believe: that common far ideals have little practical function. For example, we want to think that our loves of fiction or laughter are “true” loves, and do little to achieve base and personal purposes.
In fact of course our far ideals evolved to serve concrete, practical, and largely personal functions. A world without lies would still contain art, laughter, fiction, etc. – we’d just be more honest about the functions they serve. But that is a truth we dare not tell; we’d actually rather believe that most of our other cherished ideals are lies.
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