We live in the age of mendacity, where fibbing is normal and outright lying passes for entertainment. No wonder, then, that your child wants a lie detector for Christmas
Civilisation is impossible without lies. Sometimes, we have to license insincerity in the interests of politeness:

"Darling, you were wonderful" (translation into truth: you are talentless but I can't be bothered to tell you so).

"I hear what you're saying" (I couldn't care less what you're saying and I'm not going to let it make any difference to me).

"Princess Di was a saint" (she was shallow, selfish and spiteful but I'll upset people if I say so).

"Everybody's entitled to his or her own opinion" (some opinions are false or obnoxious but I dare not give offence).

I used to applaud such evasions, though I could never utter them myself. Now the age of the white lie seems to be over. We live in the era of black mendacity and weasel words. In politics, big business and sex, lies have become a normal form of discourse and calculated ambiguity passes for the nearest thing to honesty we can reasonably demand. Instead fibs have become a party piece this Christmas, with Hamleys selling a pounds 32.99 truth machine, an interactive device marketed as "the first truth detector instrument available to consumers!".

We have become immunised against the revulsion lies ought to inspire. The man who said "I did not have sex with that woman" can remain President of the United States. When two of London's biggest liars trade reproaches in court, we treat them with the indulgence due to buffoons rather than the outrage owed to blackguards. Jeffrey Archer's attempted perversions of justice are reclassified as confirmations of his amusing roguishness. The electors of Kensington and Chelsea endorsed Alan Clark's economy with the actualite. The metal of Jonathan Aitken's "sword of truth" turned out to be brazen; but he could still be reborn as a Christian moralist.

Some manipulations of language are morally repugnant. We have allowed Tony Blair to proclaim a "war for civilisation" while torturing innocent people with bombing raids. Kosovo is a wasteland where ethnic cleansing has not mopped up the blood; yet we let George Robertson tell us it is a product of triumph. Other falsehoods are merely ridiculous. The New Labour leaders have betrayed the party's principles, yet their claim to have kept most of their promises has been laughed off with a shrug. The Millennium Dome is a vacuous bubble into which desperately needed money has disappeared; yet the Government is already manipulating the statistics to make it seem a success. The Heathrow bus lane is an instance of idiocy that chokes the road, yet it is widely commended for reducing traffic.

Yet, whether we do it with solemnity or smiles, it seems strange that we should tolerate these abuses of language. No society has ever been at ease with the truth. But never, till now, have people been happy to do without it. Throughout history speakers have found ways of avoiding unpalatable accuracy. Ancient oracles took refuge in ambiguities ("The king shall see a great victory" - ie, perhaps by the other side). Zen masters relied on silence or meaningless noises or enigmatic gestures to elude regrettable questions. In the Europe of the Reformation and the Inquisition to speak the truth was to risk the stake or gallows. If you happened to be, say, a Catholic among Protestants, or a secret Jew where to be Jewish was against the law, you had to massage or mangle truth to survive. In all these contexts, however, respect for truth was normal; departures from it caused agonies of conscience. Liars who were found out were punished, not applauded for their entertainment value.

Nowadays in the Western world we have lost faith in the very concept of truth. "It doesn't mean a thing," students tell their teachers. "It's just a fancy name for the opinions you like. I have my truth. You have yours. So what if they contradict each other? Chill out!" You can see the ruins of truth all around you in a world where people are unwilling to condemn lies. Black students in America have been taught that Socrates and Cleopatra were black. When I say to their professors, "But it's not true," they reply, "These students are black. Their truth is different."

Victims of other prejudices exempt Hitler from his crimes against humanity on the grounds that there is no truth in history, only conflicting interpretations and reinterpretations. Deans and bishops have ceased to believe in the truth of Christianity but they keep their jobs because they believe in the truth of nothing else. A popular writer of history books for children tells his readers, "History is just a matter of opinion and your opinion is as good as teacher's." Religious fundamentalists in Kansas think they revere truth but are incapable of distinguishing facts from falsehoods. They have gone to court to demand their myths' equality with science. Even university teachers, who should, above all, honour and revere their obligation to be faithful to the truth, have succumbed to a form of despair: some of them have abandoned the quest for truth, to embrace confusion and meaninglessness as virtues. They wallow in the effusions of uncertainty: jargon, psychobabble and gobbledegook.

It is tempting to blame the media for the new age of shamelessness: notoriety is a marketable asset. The gutter-press runs through streets paved with gold. You can make a nice living out of a bad reputation. Lies, which are often vivid and brash, outsell the truth, which tends to be boring. But the problem we face is more deeply rooted in social change. In our precious, fragile pluralism, we cannot risk being vigilant for truth. Multicultural peace is threatened by candour. We do not like to inquire too closely into conflicting claims in case we provoke hatred and let blood.

By discouraging scrutiny by discounting, in effect, the difference between truth and falsehood, we disarm ourselves against lies. The society we inhabit is a tough environment for truth to survive in. It suits politicians and shady salesmen to live in a world in which truth and lies are indistinguishable. For the rest of us, it is time to start telling the truth and damning the consequences.

Felipe Fernndez-Armesto is the author of `Truth, A History and a Guide for the Perplexed', published by Black Swan.

TOP TALL STORIES

TONY BLAIR

Perhaps the most curious tale of all. The Prime Minister used The Des O'Connor Show to alert the nation to the fact that he stowed away on a plane bound for the Bahamas to escape the horrors of school life at Fettes College. Odd that, because in the history of Newcastle Airport there has never been a flight to the Bahamas.

VANESSA FELTZ

The Vanessa Show never recovered its credibility after its researchers were exposed as fantasists, making up "real" stories. As if that were not enough, Vanessa had to endure her husband telling her there was no one else involved in their marriage breakdown - only to be snapped out on the town with his new girlfriend.

JEFFREY ARCHER

Urging another to fib came back to haunt Archer with a vengeance. One moment he was endorsed as a "candidate of probity and integrity" for London Mayor by William Hague. The next it was revealed that the millionaire author had persuaded a friend to provide him with a false alibi during the Monica Coghlan libel trial for his whereabouts.

JAMES ARCHER

Not a good year for the Archer family. Archer junior was exposed as having conducted irregular share deals for which he was sacked. He had also been trading in Sweden despite not having passed the essential exam for Swedish equity traders.

GERI HALLIWELL

The former Spice Girl was desperate to get a No 1 record. Just days before her latest single hit the shops, Geri was all over the papers because of her "romance" with DJ Chris Evans. Once it was declared over (after the record made the top spot), she declared: "It was nothing to do with me." Chris and Geri may no longer share love, but they still share the same PR.

JAMIE SHEA

Alliance explanations of bombing from the Nato pin-up left a lot to be desired. After 24 hours denying responsibility for the bombing of fleeing Kosovo refugees, the Alliance then admitted that one of its planes was to blame.

MOHAMED AL FAYED

The owner of Harrods has spent the past month in court defending himself against disgraced former MP Neil Hamilton's claim of libel. It gave the multimillionaire the chance to vent his views on the Duke of Edinburgh (a Nazi sympathiser) and Mr Hamilton (a homosexual prostitute). Mr Justice Morland warned the jury that his idea of the truth was warped.

TOM SPENCER

He was just a little-known Tory MEP, until his luggage got lost and airport customs opened it up. Then he had to admit his double life: the respectable married man was a homosexual who was trying to smuggle pornography and cannabis.

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