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Ian Leslie, prolific blogger, political commentator, and the (surprisingly honest) author of Born Liars, suggests that lying – both to ourselves and to others – is as central our DNA as eating, drinking or procreating. Our social fabric, he argues, would tear at the seams were it not for the deception and self-deception that we all practice on a daily basis.

Ian Leslie, prolific blogger, political commentator, and the (surprisingly honest) author of Born Liars, suggests that lying – both to ourselves and to others – is as central our DNA as eating, drinking or procreating. Our social fabric, he argues, would tear at the seams were it not for the deception and self-deception that we all practice on a daily basis.

Nor does he stop there. Self-deception, he argues, is not only inevitable but also (in appropriate doses) a possible springboard to future success. In the case of elite athletes or politicians, for example, an over-inflated sense of one’s own self-worth can be a good thing. Without the belief that you can swim faster, think better or lead others more successfully than your competitors, you’re unlikely to make it in a cutthroat world. Self-deceit becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Indeed, the more you think about it, the more apparent it becomes that – in the short-term, at least – the continued prosperity of human-kind depends on a decent measure of both collective over-optimism (stock markets) and head-in-the-sand denial (global warming).

Does this mean that, in order to achieve success, the RSA should abandon all SMART objectives in favour of ludicrously optimistic project targets? That individuals should construct life plans which assume the IQ of da Vinci or the flipper-sized feet of Ian Thorpe? That governments should commit to far more than they could ever realistically achieve? (Wait, hang on a second.)

Perhaps not. Deceit and self-deception can only be useful as the exception to the rule. If project management, public policy and life-planning were premised on an expectation that we were all promising more than we could ever hope to achieve, it seems likely that things would soon descend into a chaotic and mistrustful shouting match.

However, there is one thought that I would like to take away from Ian’s recent talk at the RSA. He commented briefly on the fine line between creativity and lying – a new take on the idea of poetic licence, if you will. Novelists, poets, playwrights and artists may be inspired by life but are at liberty to play around with the truth in ways that politicians or project managers are not (or at least should not be). Art and literature allow us to open up a broader conversation about the nature of truth and the realm of what might be possible.

…there is a gushing river of verbal creativity in the normal human mind, from which both artistic invention and lying are drawn. We are born storytellers, spinning narrative out of our experience and imagination, straining against the leash that keeps us tethered to reality. This is a wonderful thing; it is what gives us our ability to conceive of alternative futures and different worlds. (‘Are Artists Liars?’, Intelligent Life)

Unlike individuals, artists, poets and novelists do not fabricate purely out of self-interest but do so for the sake of a broader audience – whether their goal is to distract, challenge, provoke or entertain. Art might be used to form bonds of community between people (see, for example, the Creative Gatherings hosted by Citizen Power Peterborough) or to rethink notions of attachment to place (see Take Me To, an experiment in place-making in Peterborough).

Could art or literature also be used to think creatively about challenges relating to public service reform or civic engagement in an age in which – despite all our best self-deceptive intentions – things haven’t turned out quite as favourably as we might have liked? Perhaps we would be better prepared to face the challenges of economic instability, social inequality or environmental disaster if we carried around a pair of rose-coloured glasses through which to view creative, alternative solutions. At the RSA, Jamie Young’s pioneering work around ingenuity suggests that we need to be more creative in using the limited resources we have to hand. The arts and society team is currently exploring the ways in which the arts might raise awareness of and influence behaviour around the issue of climate change. How else might we harness the creative potential of art, poetry or theatre in reimagining ‘alternative futures and different worlds’?

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