A Lie that Brings a Smile?
Ask yourself which is better – a lie that brings a smile, or a truth that brings a tear.
That’s what he said. The hot-shot lawyer was defending a man on trial as a dangerous lunatic, and the best he could come up with was ‘Even if we’re lying, you should let us off because that would make people happy.’ Seriously?
But this is Hollywood, and this is its worldview: happiness is better than truth.
The line in question is from the otherwise delightful 1994 remake of the movie Miracle on 34th Street, and the man on trial is an elderly, white-bearded gentleman who claims to be Santa Claus – the real one. Going by the name Kris Kringle, he had been hired to play Santa in one of New York’s biggest department stores, and proved such a success that the head of a rival toy store determined to bring him down. The baddy’s henchmen hired a thug to provoke Kris to anger and he lashed out with his cane just as a reporter ‘happened’ to be passing by. Oddly, the trial doesn’t focus so much on the alleged assault for which it was originally convened as on the question of whether or not Kris really is Santa Claus, and this is what his lawyer’s ‘argument’ above refers to.
They’ve been through the available evidence: He looks like Santa Claus, he owns a beautiful Santa suit, he knows the reindeer brought into the courtroom by name (he can’t make him fly when challenged, but says that’s only because it’s not Christmas Eve), the prosecuting lawyer has even affirmed to his son that Kris is the real Santa Claus. Instead of relying on this, though, instead of saying ‘all the evidence stacks up this way, and the prosecutor hasn’t been able to bring any proof that he is not Santa Claus’, the argument he finds most compelling is ‘People will like it (and like you) better if you say what they want to hear, regardless of the conclusions the evidence leads you to.’
I have to admit, that is pretty compelling. I want to be liked, I want to make people happy, I want to give them what they want, especially if it doesn’t seem like that will hurt anyone. Why not seek “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” as a certain Mr Bentham once proposed?
Why not? For a start, if you’re wrong and he’s not Santa Claus, but actually is a dangerously unbalanced man with a penchant for young children and a streak of violence when crossed (as the prosecution argued), you could make a lot of people very happy at Christmas, and a lot more very unhappy by Easter.
If he is Santa Claus, on the other hand, your reasoning makes his a pretty shallow victory. You haven’t scotched all doubt, or even made a decision based on the best fit for all the evidence. You’ve said – as his own lawyer has said – that you don’t really believe him, but you’re too weak-willed to say so when the truth is so unpopular. Is this reminding anybody else of Pontius Pilate (albeit with the opposite decision)?
Yes, it’s Hollywood, yes, it’s just a story, but it gives us a little snapshot of the way the world thinks: it thinks it is possible for a lie to be better than the truth. Our culture may not express it as starkly as that, but it firmly believes it, and it is easy for us as Christians to be hoodwinked into believing it too.
While I was writing this article I stumbled across the following quote:
Discipline is just choosing between what you want now and what you want most. (Anon)
It strikes me that wisdom is often the same. What the judge in the movie wanted now was to be popular, to have a happy ending for his case, to save the nice old man and have a peaceful Christmas. (To his credit, he did wrestle with his conscience over the decision, but that’s something of a rabbit trail.) What Kris’ lawyer wanted now was to win his case, to get his client off, to please the pretty girl whose heart he was trying to win, and to save the nice old man. Those things all carried more weight in their minds than the longer-term desire to live in a society where the truth matters, where judges can be relied on to make sound judgments, not just popular ones, where lawyers tell the truth about their clients and neither conceal nor distort it for their own ends. They chose a quiet life in the short term over a good society in the long term – and the crowds lining the streets cheered their choice.
Miracle on 34th Street is one of my favourite movies, and a key part of my Christmas season. I watch it every year, and I often watch it with children, enjoying with them a little foray into the land of make believe. But I make sure I draw their attention to the false hope of that line, because (with their parents’ blessing) I want to help them learn to think about the implications of their choices.
I also want to help them to listen to the heartbeat of our culture – not to hide away from it or run in fear from it, but to recognise it for what it is. I want them to pay attention to the worldviews competing for their hearts and minds, and to think about the importance of truth over popularity, the precedence of ‘right’ over ‘good’.
In the short term, a lie may bring a smile. In the long term, though, it will always lead to tears. And vice versa.