The Needle, The Compass

Illustration: The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs, Georges de La Tour

Back when I was young, I worked construction jobs during my summer vacation. The first couple were dirt labor work. Some of the activities I had to perform involved objects called  “hand tamp,” “red clay pipe,” and “ditch.” A backhoe would come along and dig a ditch, then a couple of idiots like myself would get in the ditch and level the ground therein. A boss would come around and give us red clay pipe lengths to place in series at the bottom of the ditch and he would get them all joined up on the nice, level ditch bottom. He would then provide a hand tamp. Our hand tamp was a nine-inch square of steel welded onto one end of a five-foot long galvanized steel pipe. The object of the exercise was to place about six inches of loose dirt around the length of the pipe, then jerk the hand tamp up and down without (1) hitting the clay pipe, (2) compacting any more than six inches oF dirt at a time and (3) weeping like someone imprisoned in a medieval dungeon for self-punishment. The tamp was heavy and the boss could see a suitable tamp rhythm from his vantage point elsewhere among the living. If the tamp and your hands were not seen every 5 seconds or so (give or take time for placing another six inches of dirt around the pipe), then he would come over and provide comment.

His favorite comment was “tamp it, don’t pat it! If you’re not gonna tamp it, don’t do nothin’ at all!” delivered in good humor before he wandered off singing his favorite song Drinking Wine, Spodie Odie, although with less fervor than demonstrated below:

What the boss knew and we were learning was that the hand tamp, and particularly this special medieval variety of hand tamp was liable to result in cheating. After jerking this thing up, then impelling it down a few dozen times, arms, shoulders, and back were all fed up, yet there the ditch and its precious red clay pipes were, leering up at us and our tamp. just over the lip of the ditch was the boss man, ready with his imprecation and his song. We were going to cheat. Our bodies demanded we do so. And he was going to know. We weren’t his first idiots eyeball-deep in a ditch.

There are forty-three synonyms for the word “lie” in the English language, although some of them need to be employed with just the right amount of eyebrow-arching and backspin to get them to fit. If I leave that sentence as is, I’ve just lied; the list doesn’t include “lie” and, for some reason that escapes me, omits the word “untruth,” which I’ve added back.

aspersion, backbiting, calumniation, calumny, deceit, deception, defamation, detraction, dishonesty, disinformation, distortion, evasion, fable, fabrication, falsehood, falseness, falsification, falsity, fib, fiction, forgery, fraudulence, guile, hyperbole, inaccuracy, invention, libel, mendacity, misstatement, myth, obloquy, perjury, prevarication, revilement, reviling, slander, subterfuge, tale, tall story, untruth, vilification, white lie, whopper
(some of these stretch the relationship to “lie” pretty thin)

But even this is a prevarication. If one starts down the “lie” rat-hole, picking each word from the list provided by, even more synonyms appear like rats scurrying for the dark holes whence they came. I chose “fib” just to see what would happen:

canard, crock, equivocation, evasiveness, fabrication, fairy tale, falsehood, falsity, fiction, invention, jazz, line, mendacity, misrepresentation, prevarication, spinach, story, tale, undetailed lie, untruth, untruthfulness, white lie, whopper, yarn
(redunancies with the first list marked in italics)

I could iterate through each of these for some time but I won’t. I have learned something: If one leans into the word “spinach” with one eye closed and a hint of a belligerent manner, you might have accused someone of lying. That’s an important lesson!

It is interesting to note that an antonym of “truth” is “untruth,” as if to call such a statement a lie would be crossing a dangerous line in interpersonal communication. “‘That is an untruth, sir!’ bellowed the magistrate at Mr. Pidget.” If the magistrate had said “that’s a lie,” do any of us believe that Mr. Pidget, liar or not, would have felt less offense? Similarly, it is odd that “fib” is defined as an “undetailed lie,” as though the concision of a fib gets a gold star for attempting a clean getaway.

Today, the topic is Cheat. I don’t see “to cheat” here but that is how I’ve been thinking. The word “cheat” doesn’t appear in the blocks of words associated with “lie” and “fib” but each definition involves deceit, fraud, dishonesty in some measure. To get this housekeeping out of the way, let’s put down a block of “cheat” synonyms:

bluff, charlatan, chiseler, con artist, confidence operator, conniver, cozener, crook, deceiver, decoy, defrauder, dodger, double-crosser, double-dealer, enticer, fake, hypocrite, impostor, inveigler, jockey, masquerader, pretender, quack, rascal, rogue, scammer, shark, sharper, shyster, swindler, trickster

There are nine additional pages of words synonymically related to “cheat.” That is not where we are headed but let’s consider that, along with the pages of “lie” synonyms. In spite of our general human agreement that lying and cheating are dastardly, no-good, contemptible, and undesirable ways of conducting ourselves, we have all of these words to describe the acts in various nuanced ways. It’s like that weird thing we temperate-landers sometimes tell each other about Laplanders: “y’know, the Laplanders have 173 words for “snow!” we say, astonished at their inventiveness. Whereas we know how to say “lie” and “cheat” in a whole bunch of ways! Which is more astonishing? We are horrified at others (and secretly ourselves) for doing “it” but we wouldn’t want the perpetrator to be offended by our discovery of their shenanigans, their “oopsie” with facts, their pernicious pratfall of prevarication.

You wouldn’t want them to disappear in a pillar of punitive smoke but why not call them out? You could be wrong or you could only know part of a story. Perhaps it is best to ask some questions and determine the full scope of the contortion. Perhaps the person you heard from first was the liar and the person in front of you the aggrieved party. That makes sense. Be civil. Don’t jump to conclusions. Recognize that there may be value in delaying your judgment. Once you completely understand who lied about what, why couch your sentence in consideration? Why search your mind for which carefully circumloquacious construct fits this particular matter?

We all have the ability to avoid persons who fabulize. Is that why we are careful? Because we can rearrange our lives to remove the liars? If we do, aren’t we lying to ourselves by pretending that the person and their anti-perspicaciousness are alright as a free-range purveyor of falsehoods? Aren’t we doing a disservice to our fellow inmates on the world stage? It’s a moral dilemma, one that we face too often and resolve too infrequently.

[N.B. I am not a follower of Judaism. In the following section, I thought it would be helpful to look at what the Christian Bible calls “The Ten Commandments” as they originated with Moshe (Moses) as he led the Israelites away from Egypt and slavery.]

In some ways, it seems that the burning bush provided Moshe with the ten commandments to give the refugees from Egypt a cheat-sheet for what to do first—and often. I wondered how the people following Moshe thought of the ten commandments; they were certainly not stated in English by the burning bush or by Moshe. It turns out that the words describing the ten commandments in Torah translate from Hebrew to “ten statements” rather than what we call them these days. In fact, there are six hundred thirteen (613) commandments in Torah. The ninth of those first ten utterances is one which we defile through lying, then get busy denying we lied:

Ninth Commandment (Exodus 20:13): You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Narrow interpretation might lead you to believe that this only applies to (1) false statements against (2) your neighbor. As Torah was first to codify the “ten statements,” perhaps some digging is required. Judaism understands that these are ten classes of behavior into which the complete list of 613 commandments sort. Under the ninth statement falls a group of more explicitly defined sins relating to speech (lashon ha-ra). This translates literally to “the evil tongue” and includes “sins against other people committed by speech, such as defamation, gossip, swearing falsely, and scoffing.

There it (they) is (are). The “ninth statement” and all of its corollaries. Many of us are busy violating it (them) in at least a few ways every day, either to ourselves or others. Does this make lying more acceptable? I do not believe so. Does it make it inevitable in the way we conduct ourselves? Probably but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t attempt to curtail it in our own behavior, as this is the only behavior over which we have immediate influence.

For me, although “cheat” is not included among the synonyms of “lie” and has its own ridiculously large set of synonyms, it is definitely a type of lying.

The card and dice cheat is transformed into the video game cheat who uses exploits to do things most players don’t know about or would prefer were not available.

The politician cheat who has a coterie of escorts available when they are working at the state or nation’s capital is lying to his constituents (and to all those who voted for his opponent), his family, his wife and children, his friends (unless they are complicit), his pastor/rabbi/priest/imam; he cheats us by not sharing the venal truth behind his public lies. The televangelist that does the same thing is no less a cheat and a liar.

The athlete who works with a pharmacist, physician, chemist, or trainer to use substances that may give them an advantage in their chosen events lies to those who witness their “hero” doing amazing things on the field. The pharmacist, physician, chemist and trainer are cheats and liars too.

The scientist, whatever their discipline, who feels defeated by their lack of results in a potentially lucrative field, or who wants to get their PhD faster and get a good salary, are cheating in an intellectual arena in which their peers will review their work and discover their lying, their cheating, their misrepresentations of what they have achieved, and they will be banished from practicing… if there is any justice.

The religious leader who parrots the words “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” or its equivalent in other religions and then violates the children and their trust cheats people of a moral code, cheats the entire congregation. The religious leader who begs for donations to the poor, then diverts those funds and pays for a new house, a new car, art, furniture, land, vacations, fine wine, dining, educational opportunities for their children, fashion for themselves and their spouses, cheats and lies in a less physically terrible way but they are no better for this difference.

The business that lobbies for subsidies, then files taxes that allows them to claim profits they would not achieve are cheats; they have molded government to their needs rather than attained the success they pretend to have gained. They lie and cheat their shareholders and their employees by hiding the truth behind their complicated, nominally legal tissue of lies. The business leader that tells the employs that the business cannot afford to raise their wages, then awards themselves and their peers huge bonuses is cheating and lying as well.

The banker who takes a loan application without doing their due diligence on whether the applicant has any likelihood of paying, who sells that loan on to hedge funds who bundle it with other loans of that type and create investment derivatives associated with the putative value of the loans, their bundles, and their derivatives, cheats other banks, entire nations, and their citizens of the possibility of having a stable lifestyle and retirement. The investment firms that tease their clients into buying shares that are priced exorbitantly compared to recognized valuations are cheats as well.

The student who employs a paper-writing service or a test-taker to stand in for them cheats their classmates in their immediate institution and their eventual institutions and employers if they go undiscovered. The students who hack into their school’s grade database or who steal a test the night before it is given or who copy answers from their neighbor do the same and cheat the same pyramid of people who they have deceived.

The policeman or soldier or citizen, whatever the country and whatever the “reasons” for the conflict, who kill each other for convenience rather than in the honest pursuit of their duties to their communities and nations, are cheats. If they compound the sin of murder with the sin of lying to themselves, their fellow public servants, and to the communities in which they serve, they cheat their fellow servants worst of all but serve none of us well.

In the book The New Ethics: A Guided Tour of the Twenty-first Century Moral Landscape by Anita L. Allen, advice is given to all of us who might improve our ethical practices, which certainly include anything that could be construed as cheating or lying. Honestly, though, she doesn’t add a single thing to our brief tour of the ten statements and their corollaries, those 613 additional commandments few of us ever even view.

It is possible that “you” are going to lie and cheat to some degree. By “you,” I mean all of us. The idea of a moral compass is that it should point us away from these practices and towards improving our behavior and those around us, whenever possible, at every turn. Let’s set our compass and steer away from what we know is wrong. If winds toss us and we go off course, remember the compass and head where it indicates.

Author: makingsenseofcomplications

I have an academic background in literature and, separately, science. My career has been in industry in positions of increasing responsibility assisting in the drug development process - one of the most amazing intellectual pursuits of the human mind, among many other amazing intellectual pursuits. I am interested in films, philosophy, history, art, music, science (obviously), literature (also obviously), some video gaming, human behavior, and many other topics. I wish there was more time in every day because we have a world that is full of amazing phenomena that are considered too superficially by too many. Although my first and last names are fictional, I think I believe in all of the stuff you read here, although I retain the right in perpetuity of changing my thoughts about anything written herein.

3 thoughts on “The Needle, The Compass”

  1. I think that any investigation, whether on a personal or societal level, reveals how prevalent cheating really is in our society. For example, I just watched The Big Short, a movie about the housing market crash, and I think it had a lot to say about how rampant the tendency to lie, not only to others, but to ourselves, truly is. I wonder if there was ever a time when that were not so. Does it have something to do with the American tendency toward individualism that disposes us to fabrication? Also came here to say that this summer I too had some experience with tamping gravel. Not fun!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve seen The Big Short as well and agree with you about what it says. I don’t think this is just an American thing. Wherever humans are up to their daily business, SOME lying and cheating are going on. Surely that’s a reason why the Mosaic laws came into being (and probably other laws as well). The Golden Rule is really about the hope that we will always treat each other with respect; lying and cheating are arguably opposites of respect.
      I gave this thing the title I did because moral behavior is a vector function. It may even be asymptotic. It is certainly a goal, whether obtained or not. Just keep reading about human behavior and I think you’ll see we’re not the only folks doing the dirty, although we certainly have our share of miscreants, public, private, rich, poor, etc.
      Tamping gravel is the penthouse suite of tamping 😉
      Thanks for your comment.
      Kind regards, MSOC

      Liked by 1 person

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