White lies to real lies is a slippery slope

Hope Hicks left her White House job last month.
Hope Hicks left her White House job last month. The Washington Post

Hope Hicks lost or left her job as White House communications director after telling the truth in a nine-hour bipartisan congressional hearing last month. She admitted that her job required her to occasionally tell “white lies” for the president. She claimed to have not lied on issues related to the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Just as native Alaskans have some 40 words to describe the snow, we have dozens of words in English for dishonesty – white lies, misrepresentation, half-truth, untruth and falsehood to name a few. While dishonesty in politics is no longer surprising in any party, today’s concepts of “post-truth politics” and “alternative facts” can unnerve us. To find the clarity and moral grounding we need on truth telling, we can start by addressing the language we use ourselves.

What are white lies?

White lies are little lies said “to” someone, not “for” someone, ostensibly harmless lies to protect someone’s feelings: blaming your disinterest in attending a party on another commitment or praising a bland meal that someone worked hard to prepare.

Little lies have consequences which we should consider, moving us to choose our words with greater intention. If we are honest with ourselves, we often tell little lies not to protect others’ feelings but to protect our own. If we tell a neighbor that our company has no positions available rather than saying we don’t think the role is the right fit and helping them find a more appropriate path, we are neither helping them find work nor extending ourselves for someone in need.

There are times when little lies are acceptable, such as those we tell our children to protect their innocence. There are times when little lies or big lies are required – in the face of evil to save lives. These are noble lies which are based on altruistic motivations. I am grateful for the more than 26,500 righteous of the nations who lied to save lives during the Holocaust.

One might consider addressing the racial implication of labeling “white” lies as innocent and instead choose to call these utterances by their rightful name, “little lies.”

There are times and settings where these little lies have no place – in the courts and congressional hearings where failing to tell “the whole truth” is perjury and punishable by up to five years in prison.

The danger of little lies is that lies beget further lies. Research shows that 60 percent of human beings tell such lies several times in the midst of a basic 10-minute conversation. Our first step to redeeming truth in public discourse is to start with choosing our own words with greater intention. Our second step is to raise our expectations for civic leaders to do the same, holding politicians accountable for lies in candidate forums and at the voting booth.

Hope Hicks confessed that her job required her to tell “white lies” for President Trump. While the Bible allows for little lies for the sake of peace, especially peace in the home, the White House where Hicks worked is not a home but a central pillar of our country’s government. Lies at any level there should require accountability.

As White House communications director, Hicks failed to discern the difference between the standards of polite conversation and the legal requirements for a federal employee, especially one in such a high position. She might now be spending a great amount of money on lawyers to defend the words she chose to use.

Rabbi Schindler is the Sklut Professor of Jewish Studies and the Director of the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice at Queens University of Charlotte. Email: schindlerj@queens.edu