Decades ago, in her influential book on lying, philosopher Sisela Bok asserted that lying has implications for the morality of the choices we make in both private and public life.
In the main, Bok advanced strong arguments for the adoption of the principle of veracity. Is this a principle that we honor in our various relationships?
In large organizations where many participants are volunteers, there is temptation to engage in lying as a way of life. Some large organizations have developed a culture of flattery.
Isn’t it bewildering to hear people offer praise where, were they honest, they would express disgust?
Some people believe they ought to flatter their listeners excessively in order to curry their favor. Sometimes flattery is used as a prelude to expressing dissent on a matter under discussion.
The culture of extravagant flattery poses several dangers.
First, it tends to have a corrosive effect on those who are steeped in the practice.
Flattery finds its origin and support in a spirit of insincerity. Those who practice it often may eventually lose the capacity to bear accurate witness to what they believe.
They become so skilled at disguising their true opinion through deliberate and practiced manipulation of words to serve dubious ends that they become numb to the morality of the means they employ.
Abraham Lincoln was not wrong when he characterized flattery and knavery as “blood relations.”
Second, flattery has negative effects on those with whom the flatterer has to relate.
People come to associate the flatterer with overstatement and they may lose confidence in the reliability of the flatterer’s judgment.
Over time, whatever the flatterer says is taken with a grain of salt as the untrustworthiness of the person adept at flattery becomes well known. The reason is because, at its base, false praise is a form of deception.
What is surprising is the extent to which persons appear to desire or to enjoy being flattered.
They thrive on it even though one supposes they know the aim of the flatterer. It is to win their favor whether using fair means or foul.
Could it be they are so desperate to believe the narrative they developed about themselves that, when flattered, they find confirmation of what they already think of themselves?
Could it be that the need for affirmation drives some persons to cherish flattery? A well-known public speaker has advised that “man does not live on bread alone: sometimes he needs a little buttering up.”
One should not heed such advice unless “buttering up” refers to laudatory speech that is truthful.
What is at stake in the culture of flattery is not simply Christians’ readiness to follow certain rules or laws. What is at stake is the kind of person the Christian is.
Those who have mastered the art of flattery need to ponder what story flattery tells about the character of the flatterer. What kind of person is it that indulges in excessive flattery?
No one has to fall in line with the culture of flattery and, while one may have to pay the price, the rejection of that vain culture says something about one’s integrity as a Christian.
Speaking the truth lovingly may prove to be costly. Yet it is worth it. Our faithfulness to Christ is at stake in the words we speak!
Neville Callam is general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance. This column first appeared in BWA Connect, the BWA’s newsletter.