Honest Thoughts on Lying.

There is a highly regarded instructor in the jazz department of USC who will never admit that he does not know a tune. If he is on a gig where an unfamiliar song is called, he will say, “Oh sure, I know it.  What key is that in?  Uh-huh. And the bridge goes to the IV chord, right?  Oh, it goes to the III, of course. Great, let’s do it.” Essentially, he bluffs, and just picks up the bits of the tune over the course of the performance. Now, this professor is a world-class player, and can generally get away with this sort of thing. Unfortunately, he advises his students to do the same thing. I realize that it is the sort of skill that can only be picked up through experience, but it leads to some pretty awful train-wrecks during jam sessions and casuals, and it drives me crazy. I’d much rather have the musicians all agree on a tune that they really know, instead of allowing one player’s bluff to sour the first few choruses of a performance.

My friends and I are avid poker players, so I think we’ve each spent a great deal more time thinking about lying than the average person. There are many kinds of lies: wholesale fabrications, lies of omission, and my favorite, the bluff. A bluff is a lie of misrepresentation. A bluffer misrepresents their relative strength or weakness, in cards or in life. Acting is if you hold pocket aces when you have a busted draw? A bluff. Pretending you know a tune when you really only know the first two chords? Also a bluff.

That Ace could not have helped you. I be-yet it all.

I was on call for jury duty on Monday, and I spent most of the day impaneled for questioning as a prospective juror. The case was a felony murder trial, so the questions the judge asked us where quite serious. On top of the usual questions about biography and knowledge of law enforcement officers, he also asked us all about our experiences with crime, gangs, handguns, etc. Some of the stories that people told were extraordinarily troubling and sad. One juror spoke about an incident 15 years ago, where his home was invaded and robbed by a group of criminals who tied up and threatened his family. Another juror told of the abuse she had suffered at the hands of her father. It was an intense day, and I was glad that I didn’t have such horrible stories to share.

My only major interaction with the judge, however, concerned lying. He asked the question, “How many of you believe that the police lie?” Many of us raised our hands, myself included.  Then he said, “Okay, how many of you think 50% of the police lie?” Several hands went up. He started working down – “how about 25%? 10%” Other hands were raised. I still had not raised mine for a specific number. He noticed:

“Juror 32, what about you?”

“Oh, well, I was waiting for you to go up!” I answered, to chuckles from the other jurors.

“How many do you think? 70%?” the judge asked.

“I think 100% of the police lie.”  Gasps!

“Are you saying that you think the police ALWAYS lie!?!”

“No,” I tried to explain, “I think that police officers are human beings just like us, and everybody lies sometimes. Not always, not even often, but I think that all police officers lie some very small percentage of the time.”

Some of the other jurors nodded in recognition, some shook their heads.  I’m pretty sure that’s when the prosecutor decided that she didn’t want me on her jury, though.

Leaving aside the judge’s conflation of “the police” with individual police officers, I found it surprising that so many of my fellow jurors claimed to believe that the police NEVER lie. I am sure that most police officers don’t just make things up, but I’d bet that almost all police officers have found themselves in a situation where they act more certain than they really feel about the strength of a case, or omit their misgivings about a piece of evidence. I think that these are lies, or at least bluffs, and I think they’re probably more common than we realize.

Jury Box

This point was driven home when I read David Grann’s incredible story “Trial by Fire,” published in the New Yorker. It’s a remarkable piece of journalism – 17 web pages long, but it reads like a crime thriller.  The story is about the tragic case of a man named Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for setting a fire that killed his three children. Recent forensic science, however, indicates that he was likely innocent all along, that the fire was accidental as he always claimed, and thus the State of Texas may have executed an innocent man. I highly suggest you read the whole thing, but one important quote is excerpted here:

“Many arson investigators, it turned out, had only a high-school education. In most states, in order to be certified, investigators had to take a forty-hour course on fire investigation, and pass a written exam. Often, the bulk of an investigator’s training came on the job, learning from ‘old-timers’ in the field, who passed down a body of wisdom about the telltale signs of arson, even though a study in 1977 warned that there was nothing in ‘the scientific literature to substantiate their validity.’”

These older style arson investigators were running a bluff, pretending their methods were scientific and foolproof, when instead they were largely nonsense.

I do not mean to trivialize the death of an innocent man by comparing it in some way to a musician not knowing a song. Quite the contrary – I’m incredibly thankful that as musicians, the worst consequence of the lies we tell is a bad performance or a lost gig. There are professions where the consequences of a lie can literally be life or death, justice or tragedy. Judges and lawyers deal with the worst of humanity – murder, robbery, rape, and arson – on a daily basis.  How lucky we are, as musicians, to have the wonderful privilege of dealing with the best of humanity everyday, attempting to bring a little joy and beauty into on otherwise harsh world? For this gift, I wake up each morning incredibly grateful.

And that’s no lie.

Published in: on September 3, 2009 at 2:24 am  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. matt,

    i too have had many conversations about the humanity of authority figures and consistently find that people cannot separate the two. The more people i meet and get to know, the more scared i am that they are the ones shaping our world, or taking care of our sick loved ones. I too am thankful for the fact that if i screw up, the worst that happens is I look like an idiot or lose some money. my friends who are doctors etc, and i’ve known them for long enough to see them passed out from various substances on the floor in the bathroom.

    There is nothing more wonderful than being able to provide that joy to people. Amen on your thoughts, and thanks for being a great conduit for those of us with like minds.

  2. Perhaps that USC prof was a proponent of the “fake it until you can make it” school of teaching. That’s what I was taught in h.s. jazz band! 😉
    So I don’t know, maybe he went home and actually learned the songs…

  3. A beautiful conclusion to some unsettling thoughts.

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