By Loren Seibold
The nuances of truth-telling and falsehood have always been near the top of Christian ethical concerns. We Christians say that even if you can successfully fool other human beings, God is watching. A piece in the September Atlantic explores a new frontier in this discussion: more people than ever before are watching, too. Living on the internet means that as never before in history we leave a trail of everything we do and say. It's easy to tell lies on the internet, but hard to lie securely.
Christian criticism of the internet has centered around two somewhat contradictory concerns: its potential for secret sin (false identities, predation, online gambling, pornography) and the erosion of personal privacy. Megan Garber thinks the second mitigates the first, or at least certain aspects of it. And she may be right. Early on, the growth of information on the net outpaced our ability to find it. But Google has organized the internet , and sophisticated tools in the hands of professionals can make mince of whatever privacy we thought we had.
Everyone lies, although Garber presents evidence that we lie less and about things of less consequence than a moral pessimist might assume. "Our daily allotment of dishonesty instead tends to involve lubricating lies ('I’m doing fine') and logistical lies ('I’ll be there soon') and charitable lies ('Of course that doesn’t make you look fat')." Only the most extreme ethic holds all untruths to be of equal weight, and a few Christian ethicists, such as Joseph Fletcher, go so far as to argue that sometimes a lie is the most loving thing to do. (As for the ninth commandment, it's frankly difficult for it to carry the weight of prohibiting every untruth: its immediate intention was to address a particular misuse of the legal system, and as interpreted by the New Testament, any statement that hurts others. It can't be used, as a few do, to defend blathering your version of the truth at everyone, such as telling someone she has an ugly hairstyle just because she does.)
But the internet can threaten even serviceable polite lies, such as "Sorry, I didn't see your email," when the receipt's time stamp shows otherwise, or "I was too busy to call you back" when your Facebook page pictures you lounging in your hammock with an iced lemonade.
Could the argument be made that this erosion of privacy, whatever its other dangers, is a boon for honesty? "The network," says Garber, "can be its own kind of lie detector." This has less to do with God watching than our desire to be trusted by others: "We may lie sometimes, but we don't want to be seen as liars." Just ask Anthony Weiner what happens to a reputation when one's e-cheating becomes public.
At best the internet brings into high relief basic human inconsistency. None of us are capable of living all in one room all the time. The condemnation of political flip-flopping notwithstanding, a foolish consistency remains the hobgoblin of little minds, which is to say even the smartest and most moral of us are self-contradictory as we evolve and grow. Even without digging too deeply, our historical net presence shows how fundamentally dis-integrated even the best of us are.