The Obsession with Falsehood and Tall Tales

A modern society which apparently has constructed mechanisms of truth disclosure, such as cameras and GPS tracking, cannot seem to conquer its obsession with falsehoods. Reality television, the premise of which is that people have their lives taped to show the world who they really are, is perhaps the pinnacle of our obsession with falsehood. Shows like JerseyShore or The Real Housewives of Orange County appeal to us because they depict a certain demographic of which we already have stereotypes. From the party loving, youthful, uber-moussed, fake gold chain donning, New Jersey Italian to the wealthy, blond, synthetic faced or synthetic breasted, I-host-more-dinner-parties-than you, Porsche or Maserati driving, California matriarch or “socialite” (and why is it that only wealthy women can make millions as “socialites” while wealthy men or men at all cannot?), we are obsessed with images that conform to a stereotype while the stereotype has no apparent social relevance or value, other than encouraging our own insatiable wishes for greater wealth, notoriety, and youth? The party loving, young, New Jersey Italian is a more appealing image than a hardworking, New Jersey Italian family trying to make ends meet. (But we have to be careful about “hardworking” images as well, for reasons mentioned below.) I imagine that a show on Orange County’s population of homeless mothers and children would not sell for those of us who think that poverty, into which millions of Americans have plunged since the recession started, should remain hidden from view, or should be viewed as a matter of personal choice and not the result of larger economic forces.

In the end, reality television is fictitious television. The whole season of JerseyShore in Italy is one example: MTV, the corporate entity funding the show and its cast, paid for the cast’s accommodations in Italy. How real is television when you have a corporation pick up your tab for a service you provide that amounts to nothing more than acting in a way that conforms to a stereotype? Strangely enough, the writers and producers of the show believe that we are supposed to find the cast’s lives interesting whether they are in Italy or New Jersey.

I’ve introduced here terms such as “writers”, “producers”, and “cast”. That reality television requires these elements suggests that the shows are fictitious and contrived, much like a scripted television sitcom or drama: far from the “real” that these image makers seek to convey.

In recent days, there has been an almost rabid obsession with falsehoods in the popular corporate media: some helpful and most not helpful. The not so helpful ones have been the girlfriend hoax involving Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o and the other involving fallen cyclist Lance Armstrong, a seven time Tour de France champion. In these scenarios we encounter famous athletes who, in the case of the former, was snared in an elaborate hoax involving a fake dead girlfriend; the latter involves a world champion cyclist who for years took performance enhancing drugs on his way to sports glory: bathed in the adoration of millions of fans who cheered him on as a hero who beat cancer and went on to conquer the world of cycling through, of course, his “hardworking” training regimen.

The reaction to the falsehoods arising from these stories has been predictable: the emphasis has been, in the case of Te’o, his diminished draft prospects; in Armstrong’s case, he can escape perjury charges as well as eventually return to racing. In both cases, the media assumes that lies will always have economic consequences for the liar, so the narrative the media wants to present is that if you lie and are caught, it will cost you financially. This is perhaps why attempts by the media to discuss personal moral failings in terms of the economic costs of those failures (in Armstrong’s case, how coming clean can rehabilitate his image and therefore rehabilitate his pocket book) suggests that our common sense conception of morality is flawed. Morality, it seems, is only legitimate when there is something to gain from performing a moral act; or, immoral acts are rightly declared so because the perpetrator stands to lose wealth as a result of his or her misdeeds.

Of course, this conception of morality is not anything new. If we look at some of the earliest proponents of what historians call the “Gospel of Wealth”, such as Andrew Carnegie, such figures thought the link between moral rectitude and personal wealth was almost as automatic as the link between smoking and lung cancer. But even during those supposedly glory days of industry—when American factories were essentially sweatshops—we still ought to look upon such nonsense as exposing a tragic flaw in the American character: especially after the near collapse of the banking industry and subsequent government rescue showed that immoral behavior reaped heavy rewards.

I fundamentally disagree with the suggestion that the moral value of an action is determined by or equivalent to its economic consequences. But I come at this not from a standpoint of listlessly parroting Platonic or Kantian arguments that certain moral rules transcend all cultures at any time or place. It is still rather surprising that in those dusty, mildewy, seminar rooms of university philosophy departments, complex “debates” over whether there are objective moral or ethical standards still amble on with a zombie like limp: as if such debates have anything to do with the simplistic nature of moral behavior. Instead of us engaging morality from the standpoint of a high minded, quasi specialist who these days often looks to model his or her theory of ethics upon predominant scientific modes of explanation (exemplar culprits these days are “Darwinian ethics” or “quantum ethics”) we can perhaps look at the emotional or physiological results of the action to determine its moral value. Lying can cause feelings of disappointment and betrayal to those who are its immediate victims. Yet it is unfortunate that in the made for television cases mentioned above, we have formed an opinion of the person’s morality when that person is really filtered to us (i.e., mediated to us) through the media’s lenses. We really don’t know the person, don’t have a personal relationship to that person, and so his or her actions cannot really have a bearing upon us emotionally: unless we have invested emotions in that celebrity. But the celebrity is only an image that we have invested emotion in: the aspects of the celebrity the media and the celebrity chooses to selectively disclose are the building materials of that image.

The final example of the media infatuation with falsehood has been equally telling, because it squarely analyzes false advertising and puts a company friendly to controversially conservative positions under the microscope. Subway, a leading sandwich maker, was recently called out by a customer who actually measured a submarine sandwich, and discovered that the sandwich was not exactly a foot long: contrary to what Subway advertises. Subway’s reaction was that “foot long” was the designation for the sandwich and no way should have been taken to be a precise measurement for the sandwich.  It is always refreshing to catch a corporate entity telling a tall tale (or should I say, a “foot long tale” in Subway’s case) because it is a blatant example of a profitable corporation that has apparently made billions off of false advertising.

So much for the gospel of wealth work ethic: it is just another foot long tale.

Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is working on his dissertation in history at Florida State University. He has taught US history, Western Civilizations, and Modern Global history at Tallahassee Community College, Northern Virginia Community College, and Howard Community College, the history of western science at Florida State University, symbolic logic at Ohio University, and digital multimedia and graphic design at Sanford Brown College in Boston, MA. Read other articles by Harvey.