Aspergians are often said to be brutally honest. It’s an Asperger’s stereotype that we can’t tell a lie. Recently I started thinking about this, and I realized that at least for me, it’s a little more nuanced than simply being unable to lie. I can lie, and I have done it many times, yet I have a complicated relationship with truth and lies that often seems to put me at odds with neurotypical society.
I believe that truth is a moral mandate, that it is inherently good to tell the truth. In this I agree with the great moral philosopher Immanuel Kant, who once wrote:
A lie is the abandonment, and, as it were, the annihilation, of the dignity of a man. He who does not himself believe what he states to another person (were it but an ideal person), has a still less value than if he were a mere thing; for of the qualities of this last some use may be made, these being determinate and given; but for any one to communicate thoughts to another by words intended to convey the contrary of what the speaker really thinks, is an end subversive of the purpose and design for which nature endowed us with a faculty of interchanging thought, and is upon these accounts a renunciation of one’s personality, after which the liar goes about, not as truly a man, but as the deceptive appearance of one only. Veracity in one’s statements is called candour; if such statements contain promises, fidelity: both together make up what is called sincerity.1
The peak of my lying occurred from about the age of 14 until 17. I think it started because I realized that most adults around me were manipulating me using lies. I deduced therefore that it’s considered socially acceptable to tell lies in order to gain a strategic advantage over others. I started to tell lies because I didn’t want others to take advantage of me, and I didn’t want adults to have power over me. I was never perfectly comfortable with lying, but with practice it became easier and easier over time.
After high school, I no longer felt the need to lie to get what I wanted. Once you’re 18, you no longer have to obey adults, because you are an adult, except of course for obeying the law. I mostly stopped lying, but every so often I find myself still telling a lie for no reason. I think this is a remnant of my adolescence, and it’s something I’m trying to put an end to, because every time I catch myself lying it feels painful.
I’ve come to realize that there are really two broad types of lies, which I will call interpersonal lies and extrapersonal lies. Up until now I’ve mainly been talking about interpersonal lies. An interpersonal lie is a lie which primarily affects the individual telling the lie. For example, if someone asks how often you go to the gym, and you tell them you go three times per week because you’re ashamed to admit you never exercise, I would call this an interpersonal lie, because you’re only hurting yourself and potentially hurting your relationship with the person to whom you’re lying if you ever get found out.
Interpersonal lies can further be divided into two categories: white lies and serious lies. I would define a white lie as being relatively harmless. This type of lie could involve, for example, telling your friend he looks like he’s lost weight, even though he looks the same as the last time you saw him. It could also mean telling a loved one you liked a gift even if you don’t actually like the gift. These are interpersonal lies which are relatively harmless and allow us to maintain relationships without upsetting people.
Serious interpersonal lies are a category wherein lying can actually start to become harmful. I would define a serious interpersonal lie as a lie which still primarily affects individuals, but can actually be damaging and pernicious. The most obvious form of serious interpersonal lie would be fraud, lying to people for financial gain. However, this category also includes lies which may be well-intended but which are ultimately harmful.
I’ll give a difficult example to illustrate where I diverge from neurotypical thinking. Let’s say that you know two people who are dating, and you happen to gain certain knowledge that one partner is unfaithful in the relationship, and the other partner, becoming suspicious, asks you if you know anything about it. Most neurotypicals I know would lie in this situation to avoid involving themselves in someone else’s business and avoid damaging their friendship with the unfaithful partner. Personally, I would call this a serious interpersonal lie, it’s a situation where I would feel compelled to be honest, despite the knowledge that I might be breaking up a relationship and ending a friendship. I would know that the information is very important and would have a real-world impact on the faithful partner’s decisions, and hiding that information would make me feel like exploding. It’s something I would never want someone to hide from me, so I would never hide it from someone else. In short, if you ever want to keep your philandering a secret, don’t tell me about it, because I will not lie for you. I believe people deserve to know the truth about things which directly affect their lives, even if it may be painful.
The most significant type of lie is an extrapersonal lie. I define an extrapersonal lie as a lie which affects a broader group of people, or even an entire society. These are the collective lies which define the social world, and the ones which I find the most frustrating of all. A regretfully-common example of an extrapersonal lie is when a person in power uses lies to secure their position, and the people he/she represents are complicit in the lie. This type of lie is illustrated in dystopian fiction such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and it is the preferred strategy of most politicians. In 1984, government employees revise information to fit a government agenda instead of telling the truth, and everyone knows it’s a lie, but they still go along with it to protect their lives and livelihood, and maintain the ongoing systemic dishonesty. That may seem like a thing of fiction, yet in our daily lives we constantly buy into lies about the state of our political systems, economy, and environment. We allow corporations to make clearly false claims about their products just because the brand is popular and people don’t want to be cultural contrarians. Orwell once wrote that “political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.“2
Lies are a defining characteristic of every abusive régime, from Nazi Germany, to Trump’s America, to bosses who mistreat their employees. People living in such a régime seem to buy into the lie for strategic reasons. Telling the truth is dangerous. It means setting yourself apart from others. It sometimes means risking your life and freedom; whereas complacency with the lie can buy you political favour, and may help you gain power.
Extrapersonal lies are more painful to me than any other type of lie, because I feel like I’m looking through a frosted glass window, or I’m trapped in some dystopian world where everybody knows the truth but fails to acknowledge it. This feeling makes me want to explode. I literally feel a pressure building up inside of me, I can’t tolerate it, and the only way to let out the pressure is to speak the truth.
I guess I would be a terrible politician. I will say the truth even when it is rude, or socially unacceptable, and even when it spoils my chances of gaining political power, securing my social standing, or advancing my career. Sometimes it can be difficult to draw a line between what is an Asperger’s trait and what is part of my personal moral outlook. In this case I think it is a combination. I base my morality partly on what I’ve learned from my family, faith, and life experiences, but I think Asperger’s gives me a greater appreciation for strict moral rules, and it allows me to feel less compelled to conform to sociocultural norms. As a result, when I’m more attached to a moral standard than I am to a human relationship, I’m more likely to stick with the rule than with whatever society says is normative.