Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Not Technically A Lie Culture

A few years ago a student wrote an angry letter to me. According to her I had upset a French exchange student so much that she ran to the Assistant Dean in tears asking to drop the course. Not wanting to cause an international incident I searched my roll for a French student and could not find one. So I found the letter writer and asked for details. She informed me that what she had written had not actually happened but "could have." I believe she felt it was not a lie because under the correct circumstances all of that could have happened. In a way it was, technically, not a lie.

Some of the same mentality affects the "not technically a lie" culture of elites and many deans. For example, "I do not remember saying that" means I do not recall using exactly those words. And, "The meeting was not held for that reason" means, "That was not the only thing we discussed at the meeting." The most recent example is the one in the last post just below: "Bill cannot go" which means, "I paid Bill not to go and he isn't going."

I am not sure how elites come to know of the "not technically a lie" norm and why exactly they rise to it so quickly. (I do understand why so many deans rely on the rule.) The rule is a cousin of "Don't write anything down that you would not want in the NYTimes" rule that a colleague once announced, having actually completely turned the actual rule on its head. (The actual rule, as a moneylaw contributor told me when I discussed this over on that site is "Don't DO anything you would not want reported in the NYTimes.)

But here is the catch: Almost all of them know the rule and follow it. This means, for the most part they know not believe anything someone tells them who is also an elite. And, in turn, they know others are unlikely to believe them. In a way, this is not distrust because it is all within the rules. There was no trust in the first place.

If you are not an elite (or a dean), you may not know the rule. It's a bit like playing basketball at a different gym and not knowing that in that neighborhood a hand check is perfectly OK. The difference is that you figure out the hand check rule quickly. The not technically a lie rule takes much longer to figure out and in the process you may take the completely inappropriate step of pointing out that someone has . . . . well, not been forthcoming. Learning the rules of the elites is not for sissies.

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