Fakes, liars, cheats, deceivers, animals in the forest

It’s all around us. From face lifts to luxury cars on hire purchase, from inflated CVs to exaggerated job titles, from company publicity material to the spin that governments put on their failures and deceptions. At what point does fakery become fraud? Would the world be a duller place without it?

Thor May
Brisbane, 2014



Preface: This is a discussion paper, not a researched academic document. The reading list at the end is mostly a collection of contemporary links from the Internet and pretty accidental, not edited for quality. Where a topic is of broad general interest comes up with friends, I have adopted the practice of posting discussion starters like the present one on Academia.edu in the hope that others might also find them worth thinking about.





1. The scope of this discussion


All's fair in love and war, or so the winners have claimed from time immemorial, and the animal kingdom seems to agree. Deception has always been a primary tool for getting the girl or the guy or the kingdom or the contract. It soon made a kind of sense to invent laws and religion which gave special rights of deception to the winners while the losers were supposed to tip their forelocks and say humbly that "the Lord is my shepherd", then promise not to stray. That is, might was right, and explained as the just order of things. However, this was a bit discouraging for those out of luck.

When self-help books started arriving,  their first and biggest market turned out to be giving the depressed sheeple permission to fake-it-till-they-made-it, whatever making it might mean to them. In relative modernity, an early starter in this line of woo was the Reverent Vincent Peale with his "The Power of Positive Thinking" (1952). He must have been onto something because it is still selling, and has countless imitators. For every action, there is also a reaction – now even an anti- positive thinking movement (Ehrenreich 2010).

Faking it to make it is all very well, almost old fashioned. A harder trick may be to fake it to keep making it. Think of the legions of middle aged workers who sincerely hate their jobs but have to fake wanting to be there since there’s not a snowflake’s chance in hell they will ever get another job (Courtenay 2014). The same might be said for countless soured marriages, preserved for the sake of children. And then we have those at the top of their game, but scared of falling over. At President Barrack Obama’s inauguration ceremony in 2009 the marines honour band pretended to play while their own pre-recorded performance came over the loudspeakers. The performer, Beyonce, sang flawlessly.. um, well she actually lip-synched her own pre-recorded voice (Younge 2013). And the President of course spoke movingly … reading from an autocue out of sight from the TV cameras. So where are the borders of reality now? We live in a haze of manicured virtual relationships (May 2013b: “The 541st Facebook Friend”).  

Of course, anyone who is not pathologically naive and who has encountered the corporate-speak of today's urban living knows that the fake-it meme is already in the DNA of most institutional critters, large and small. The only news is that this virus might also be deployed by bus drivers and check-out girls. With this in mind, the essay takes the fake-it topic beyond some simple self-trickery sold as positive thinking, and looks at various extended mutations inside and outside of the law. The reading list reflects this.


2. The shifting sands of moral judgement on deception


One interesting issue is the red lines of acceptability and the green lines of um-OK which people set up in their minds when coping with deceit/fakery/fraud etc. I've personally come to the conclusion that while we assume that others share our red and green lines, in behavioural practice there is only very limited consensus about what is or is not OK in matters of deception. This can be even be played upon in the mass media when people are socially and professionally lured into admitting or inventing transgressions for public entertainment (Younge 2013). Although I’m a lousy faker myself, my own gold standard for moral judgements is whether the deceit was done with good intentions, and whether self or others are likely to be hurt or helped by the act. That’s a judgement call, and not always easy to make.


3. Acceptable ranges of personal deception


The most generous concessions we make to testing the limits of fakery are those we apply to our own needs and failings. Everyone wants to be a hero in their own movie. It tends to work outwards from there, to family, intimate partners, friends, acquaintances, and so on. At this proximity we may be direct though not vicious in calling out a deception in those we know well, or we may joke about it. In fact, we may culturally expect a plain girl to wear makeup, or a man to barrack for a football team he privately cares nothing about.

When life seems especially grim or hopeless we may conjure up and project a degree of illusion (or self-delusion) about a nicer future, on the principle that all the world loves a winner, so given sufficient chutzpah it can all come true. The personally timid, depressed, angry or fearful individual may be persuaded to put on a happy and confident face to help with future realities. Apparently this actually does change outcomes at least some of the time, and has spawned the aforementioned deluge of self-help books and courses. It has also spawned many work environments of fake and therefore stressful bonhomie. We may not be entirely persuaded when the shop assistant with deadpan eyes says “have a happy day”.

At the personal level, deception may be entirely private (self-deception), or it may be to coolly present a certain invented persona socially or professionally, or it may involve self-deception for the purpose of public deception.

The propagandist’s first target is him/herself. Smith (2014) notes that effective politicians endeavour to persuade themselves of causes, whether or not the causes are credible. The same is true of any salesman. I once had a very brief career cold calling to sell typewriter ribbons and carbon papers. I was an abject failure, being quite unable to convince myself or my hoped-for customers that the products were of value. Yet the promiscuous promises and deceptions of sales talk can be intoxicating for some who make a career of it.

Deception is usually thought of as raising expectations falsely. However, it may also be used to lower expectations. Keeping a low profile disarms possible attack. Showing apparent weakness may mislead a competitor into careless error. Ambiguous agreement leaves no space for counter-argument. And so on. Even as a private game, this technique can yield a certain kind of empowerment. The only job interviews I have ever managed well were those where I persuaded myself that the outcome didn’t matter terribly much after all. Wanting something too much can be a severe handicap. In retrospect, I might have had more luck with romance if this lesson had been learned earlier …


4.  Community attitudes to public deceit


In contrast to our tolerance for a little private cheating, as a community we are usually censorious about fake behaviour or products, or other deception where we have least real control. Politicians are widely regarded as having morals lower than a grass snake, and abused in their physical absence accordingly (see the outstanding analysis by Warick Smith, 2014, Parts 1, 2 & 3; also Lyon 2013; Milman 2014).

Companies are not even human, and can therefore both act without regard to the public interest, and expect to be targeted by the public for infractions, but have teams of lawyers to avoid real consequences (e.g. see Ferguson 2014a,b,c,d; Yeates 2014, West 2013 & 2014, Planet Plutocrat 2014, Liptak 2014, Lawrence 2014, Kanamori 2014, Davey 2013, Adonis 2013, Featherstone 2014). Indeed, those who expose corporate and institutional malfeasance, whistle blowers, are the ones most at risk (MCT 2013, Pascoe 2014, Remeikis 2013, Donna 2010;  and of course the pursuit by power elites of individuals who have exposed the worldwide mass surveillance recently of whole populations in the name of “security”).

Mischief from the dog that didn’t bark : the general idea of laws or rules is usually that certain things are forbidden, but that otherwise the legal agent, human or institutional, is free to act and profit from the environment. (Contra: a wry Chinese person once explained to me that in the PRC, everything not explicitly allowed by law was forbidden). The free range idea gives rise to whole industries and professions, some of which in common parlance would probably qualify as fake, deceptive, anti-social, against the public interest, and so on. Lawyers feed in these rich pastures. Tax avoidance is an example which quickly comes to mind. Parts of fringe medicine might be another.

Some features of modern organizational life almost seemed designed to encourage adherence to the letter but not the spirit of fair play. I am thinking here of compliance regimes, which deal in ever more minute detail with tick-box requirements. Such requirements sometimes can and do save lives – as for example, in hospital safety routines.

Yet compliance framers often overlook critical features of human psychology. Where good judgement and experience  were once needed and valued, dogmatic but simple minded compliance requirements can give an false illusion of tasks well-done, and actually provide worm holes for the lazy or ill-intentioned to escape responsibility. I have seen a lot of this in mass education institutions.  Anything to do with money is a honey pot for sly deception. For example, a little research on the accountancy auditing industry will throw up damaging and persistent instances of compliance requirements ruthlessly warped (West 2014a, 2014b, 2013). The net effect of cynically exploited compliance routines can be to undermine public trust in institutions.

Since actual humans have to work in the sometimes toxic environs of companies and institutions, institutional staff might also accumulate certain company or institutional cultural attributes of deceit (Alexander 2013, Burns 2014, McKenzie 2013, Schnurer 2013, Simons 2014, Wilkins 2014, Yiu 2014). 

As relatively free agents, professionals are expected to act with probity. Where they fail the interests of clients through fake, fraud or other deception the penalties are supposed to be severe. The reality may be something else. (See Silva 2014, Shaw 2014, Rushton 2013, Medew 2012, McCoy 2014, Freedman 2012, Ferguson 2014a,b; Cosslett 2013, Duffin 2013, RT Novosti News 2013, Traveller.com 2011, Yim 2011, Onishi 2014).

One interesting feature of professional failure is that fake qualifications + actual operational competence is considered outrageous and may earn jail time (Bloomberg News 2014, Duffin 2013). On the other hand, appropriate qualifications + operational incompetence or even fakery tends to be seen as a sad but common feature of the human condition, usually censored by little more than a loss of business or reputation, if that (Briffa 2012, Freedman 2012).


5. Paradoxes of belief and underestimation


In the never ending acceleration of our ever more complicated civilization, the largest part of what we “know” comes from what somebody else told us. For wiser individuals, such knowing is forever conditional, and tested again and again against outcomes over a lifetime. That is what scientific method is supposed to be about, yet even amongst scientists it is a minority habit.

For most people most of the time, information is accepted as knowledge if the giver has some kind of authority. The mechanic is supposed to know best about mechanics, the lawyer about law, the doctor about medicine, and the professor about his specialization.  If it is printed in a book, the credibility of the information is multiplied.

When we look at actual outcomes, such common faith in authority is very, very often misplaced. To challenge it is to invite not only doubt about the challenger, but often hostility as well.

My particular childhood environment, in a poor and itinerant family, probably had a good deal to do with early and lifelong scepticism about the claims of authority. No doubt that scepticism has kept me an outsider, and for the most part an automatically discredited outsider. From time to time of course, I have been wrong and the authority of the moment has been right, or partly right. But where I have been right, the rightness was frequently resented as posing a threat, or not coming from a worthy source. Nowadays, as one embellished with a PhD, the contempt is more muted, yet the owner has not become more nor less wise, and the doctorate is irrelevant to most of what turns up in my writing. It often seems that brand and reputation is everything, not the worth of a proposition. There is nothing unique about this situation. For 1500 years the wise men of Europe told each other that the sun revolved about the earth, and were eager to incinerate anyone who suggested otherwise.

The point of the paragraphs above is that faking belief in the accepted wisdom of the day (when faking is needed), and publicly admiring those who disseminate it, is probably the surest path to worldly success. It helps enormously if your mind is not critical enough to see the flaws in the accepted wisdom of the day. You will be a true believer and feted above all others. My handicap has been a moral inability to play this kind of faking game. Put it down to poor upbringing. Some cultures make the whole process rather easier by formally creating private and public behaviour roles. Within the boundaries of these roles even conflicting beliefs may be played out with appropriate enthusiasm. The Japanese distinction of honne (true feelings) and tatemae (public façade) is a good example.


6. The invincible shields of status, reputation and qualifications


The Archbishop of Canterbury has recently announced that he sometimes doubts the existence of God, and cannot defend belief in this god to non-believers (Bingham 2014). As leader of the Anglican faith, this would seems a somewhat startling revelation. Yet it is unlikely that his position will be seriously challenged. What he represents is, as it were, too big to fail. Too much social (and financial!) capital would be lost if the leaders of that religion simply packed up and retired to a nearby unemployment office. The interesting thing is that this archbishop no longer feels a need to fake it. As an alter boy or newby priest with ambition, he certainly would not have the liberty of such insouciance.

For those who wish to exercise power, or to be believed, or at least to be employed, any tool which gives them claim to some authority will be pursued relentlessly. That tool may be as crude as a gun, or as pretentious as a job title, or as gauche as an academic credential. In all of these cases the temptation to seize the talisman by guile and fakery is immense.  

The code word for the firm belief that something is of value to the individual, an organization or a country is confidence , and magic talismans like university degrees are of high value in the confidence game. However, any kind of branding – even a beer bottle label – is better than no branding. Even the value of money depends upon confidence, and that confidence turns on the country's "brand", or reputation. As this essay has noted already, most of our confidence is founded on accepting the worth of information which is not validated by personal experience. Branding, for the uncritical mind, is a lazy short cut for validating indirect knowledge, and is therefore an irresistible target for every level of fakery.

Religious confidence may be based on accepting faith itself as a value beyond challenge. A lot of people seem to find that sufficient, although, as the Anglican archbishop realized, not all. Ideology trades on a similar approach, and is similarly vulnerable. As with branding, so with the imprimatur of faith: value comes with reputation, and reputation, while it may be well earned, can just as easily be built of foundations of deceit by the unscrupulous.

The defence of faith against disbelievers and the indifferent many may depend upon selective quotation from a revered text like the Bible, trading upon the trustfulness of children, or targeted social approval and rewards for those drawn into the community of the faithful. In the last resort the defence of faith may well also entail violence. The defence of faith in an ideology typically follows a similar path to the religious stratagems, but tends to be less durable since the promised rewards are rarely supernatural.

7. Trust, concealment and betrayal from the agents of government and business

Businesses, and most governments, have only a limited resort to religion or ideology as tools to foster faith in their processes. As complex institutions, their leaders know that they cannot please everyone all of the time, even with the best of intentions (and historically their intentions have not always been the best). They must therefore resort to the manipulation of opinion and the cultivation of desirable “needs” in their target populations. Advertising, public relations, the selective release of information, the obsessive collection of information and the reluctance to share information (usually called “security”), are almost universal features of governments, institutions and businesses of all kinds. That is, the tools to control public confidence almost always imply a level of deception, and without such tools the institutions are naked, as they see it, to attack.

It is true that the general level of cynicism, and its opposite, trust, go through cycles in the populations of particular countries. National populations tend to come together in the face of traumatic circumstances, and for a while old doubts and vendettas will be buried to confront a common enemy, or follow a new hope.

World War II was a defining experience for huge numbers of people, and in countries as diverse as the UK, Germany, Australia, Japan and South Korea, close observers will confirm that the public values of ordinary people in the post-war period were markedly different from more recent generations. A similar general shift in psychology can be seen across generations of people in Russia and China. In every case, politicians and sundry carpet-baggers have betrayed nascent public trust and the public’s willingness to self-sacrifice in conditions which extremely threatened general welfare. In every case, the cynical self-interest demonstrated by elites has eventually infected general populations. The erosion of trust and honesty has extraordinarily broad consequences, from the quality of workmanship to the quality of marriages, from civic participation to the ethics of business practice.

Perhaps the single most important protection for hard won freedoms and civil institutions is access to unbiased information. Information of public interest withheld or distorted is direct nourishment for every kind of fraud and malfeasance and a short step from tyranny. Our generation has seen an exponential growth of information distortion in the public sector, the private sector, and then inevitably at the level of personal behaviour.

Our personal autonomy and full scope to develop our potentials depend in many ways on optimum access to unbiased information, and the freedom to challenge accepted truths. There will therefore always be a constant tension between free minds and the secretive objectives of organizations and their agents. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.


8. The tangled ways of education for profit


At this point I will take a small detour into the murky world of deceit, fraud and general self-delusion which seeps from the cracks in educational institutions. I happen to have had a particularly extended experience of pursuing academic credentials (in retrospect, a foolish journey travelled with a probably foolish lack of guile). I have also been in the business of performing those teacher circus tricks which are supposed to validate academic credentials. Along the way I have seen fakery on a grand scale in seven countries, played in an infinitude of ways, and mostly with impunity (e.g. see May 2006, 2008a, 2012). The education process itself is often a simulation, supposedly of real life prospects, and the diplomas which accompany it are less claims on past achievement (dubious as those might be) than as promises of future potential.

In this situation it is hardly surprising that possessing diplomas by whatever means becomes more important for many (most?) aspirants that whatever mastery of knowledge they claim to guarantee. In China and South Korea, where I spent twelve years in tertiary institutions, there is often a scarcely concealed conspiracy between teaching staff and students:  “you pretend to learn and I’ll pretend to teach”. The cultural and monetary rewards of the system sustain this fakery. In so-called Western countries such as Australia plagiarism and ghost writing by students is an ever rising threat, yet staff are under enormous pressure to ignore all but the most blatant of such fraud, especially as 60% of tertiary teachers are on short term sessional contracts, and consequently neutered in any institutional conflict. 

Many universities accumulate a long histories of discrimination against academics who raise awkward questions about probity, although they prefer not to  publicize such events. My own alma mater, the University of Newcastle, NSW, could serve as an example here (Donna, Newcastle Herald 2010).  For similar reasons, grade inflation is endemic. Universities, which are now essentially marketing organizations, have every incentive not to look too hard at the real quality of teaching and learning.


9. So when have we “made it” anyway?


In the restaurant at the end of the universe, when all ambition has come to naught, the race is done and nothing is left but to tell of times past, will we embellish our stories and claim to be heroic survivors from events lost in the mists of time? Of course we will. For those with brains not cauterized by TV and virtual lives which forgot to actually live, stories are a nourishment for the soul. Stories are built on selective memories and imagination. We tell them to validate ourselves and to please others. Since actual daily experience is apt to be neither so fascinating nor so kind to our egos as a well told tale, we are likely to create a somewhat fictional account of worlds which might have been. That is, we fake it, and the faking is well loved.

At each stage of a life, short term and long term goals mutate. As children we can’t properly imagine what is to come. Making it in a playground may mean bluffing a bully while you quake in your boots. Making it as a teenage boy may mean faking street cred’ as a bad boy, which is what hot chicks seem to want. The hot chicks have their own versions of deception. Stretching out ahead of these tricky beginnings is the eternal saga of scraping through college, bluffing through job interviews, playing the whole repertoire of corporate deceptions to survive in the shark pool of a career, and being tipped into obscurity at fifty as a has-been.

Of course, all this fakery may not be what you are about. You may play a straight bat from start to finish. Depending on luck, intelligence, your good looks, your connections, the job niche you choose, you may be a scintillating success renowned for never being drawn to the dark side. Or you may be pasted as a naïve imbecile. There are many kinds of animals in the forest. Which kind are you?




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Source of this essay

meetup group: Brisbane Active Thinking Meetup http://www.meetup.com/Brisbane-Active-Thinking-Meetup/

topics already discussed: http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/DiscussionTopics/DiscussionIndex.htm

comments: Thor May - thormay@yahoo.com



Professional bio: Thor May has a core professional interest in cognitive linguistics, at which he has rarely succeeded in making a living. He has also, perhaps fatally in a career sense, cultivated an interest in how things work – people, brains, systems, countries, machines, whatever… In the world of daily employment he has mostly taught English as a foreign language, a stimulating activity though rarely regarded as a profession by the world at large. His PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of finding his way out of working class origins, through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia in 1972).

contact: http://thormay.net thormay@yahoo.com

academic repository: Academia.edu at http://independent.academia.edu/ThorMay   

discussion: Thor's Unwise Ideas at http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/unwisendx.html  


Fakes, liars, cheats, deceivers, animals in the forest (c) Thor May 2014


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