Emily Dickinson said it best:Tell all the truth, but tell it slant -
Success in circuit liesToo bright for our infirm delight
The truth's superb surprise
As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.The spread of dishonesty is the moral plague of the '90s.
Much of it is familiar - the exaggeration we engage in when writing a job recommendation for a friend, the tendency to fudge our own resumes to make us look better when we apply for a job, the tendency to tell someone we don't want to see that we're busy when we're not.
Little white lies.
Sometimes we think they are justified for someone else's good. A new member of a church or a new employee of a company should be shielded from information that he or she is not yet ready to accept.
So we fail to tell them something they really should know - or we purposely fudge the information. But we justify it to ourselves because we think these people are ready only for milk - not meat.
Often what bothers us the most is the tendency of people in high places, wherever they might be, to commit acts of dishonesty - and sometimes to get away with it.
The biggest problem for people who lie is that telling one lie creates the necessity to retell it - over and over again.
The more lies they tell, the more lies they must tell, creating a complicated tapestry of implausible stories that one day will surface and injure the teller.
Not to mention the people who have heard the lies for years - and believed them.
Sometimes it takes a long time - but it always comes home to roost.
An excellent book on this subject is "Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life," by Sissela Bok, a philosopher who teaches at Harvard University.
Bok says those who lie never seem to weigh the harm it may do to themselves, especially when they think they are doing good for someone else.
Nevertheless, they will be seriously injured, says Bok, and they often underestimate the chances that they will be found out.
"Then they will be doubly hurt - not just from having lied but from the loss of confidence of the people who know about it. People who are lied to are harmed because they are manipulated. They are led to make choices on the basis of false information. Their choices might well be different if they knew they were being lied to."
The results of the lie, she says, radiate beyond the people directly involved "to all the people who surround the liar and the deceived: office workers who overhear a colleague tell a lie; people in an organization who find out their competitors have lied; people who buy a product only to find it had been deceptively advertised; the relative of a sick person who has been lied to by health officials - all these people will suffer a loss of trust."
It is very hard - sometimes impossible - to get the trust back.
An excellent example comes from recent Utah history. By January 1954, Utah's increasingly famous Republican congressman, Douglas Stringfellow, was a very nervous man.
In rapid succession he received one award after another, culminating in his appearance on the celebrated TV program, "This Is Your Life."
Ralph Edwards recounted Stringfellow's life for a mass TV audience, climaxed in his most famous alleged exploit, a sensitive wartime mission in which he rescued Otto Hahn, a famous German scientist, from behind enemy lines and upset the Nazi timetable for the atomic bomb.
The next day, Stringfellow, who had been telling this cloak-and-dagger story with charismatic flair for at least seven years, was unveiled as an elaborate liar. His political career, built on that shaky foundation, was abruptly smashed.
"Tell all the truth, but tell it slant."