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What’s your angle?

August 29, 2018

Is it too early in the year to quote my favorite Christmas movie? It won’t be any of the Christmas-y parts, so maybe we can pretend it comes from something else. I promise not to mention the snow, or heart-warming music, or glittery fabulousness. Promise.

Every guy I know rolls his eyes whenever I say it, but “White Christmas” is the greatest Christmas movie of all time. Not just because the 1950s post-war prosperity-promising glitz and schmaltz give you all the warm fuzzies and hope that an American Christmas movie should, but also because there are some pretty surprisingly truthful observations about human nature buried underneath all of that fluffy snow.

One of my favorite moments in the film is when the four lead characters meet for the first time. The premise is that Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Phil Davis (Danny Kay) are old Army buddies who have become a famous song and dance team and they have been asked by another Army buddy to go catch his sisters’ act, Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy Haynes (Vera Ellen), at a nightclub near Wallace & Davis’ latest big show.

Once the introductions have been made, Betty can’t help but come clean on how the two men were fooled into coming, “…you were brought here tonight under false pretenses. Bennie didn’t write the letter, my sister did. She figured you would never come to see us if we asked you, and you might if Bennie did.”

“Ha, ha, how do you like that?” says Bob, “Even little Judy there’s got an angle going, huh?” Betty protests but he says, “You don’t have to apologize. Everybody’s got an angle.”

“That’s a pretty cynical point of view,” Betty marvels.

“Oh come, come now, Ms. Haynes, surely you knew that everybody’s got a little larceny operating in them. Didn’t you know that?”

How very cynical, indeed, Mr. Wallace. Are we to understand that people have been misleading each other in order to achieve their goals long before our current apparently social media-driven propensity to “fake it,” to sell ourselves in a less than honest yet flatteringly softer light? Apparently so, as it turns out that we humans are naturally inclined to stretch the truth. In June 2017, National Geographic published a fascinating article titled, “Why We Lie: The Science Behind Our Deceptive Ways.” The subtitle notes that while honesty may be the best policy, scheming and dishonesty are simply part of what makes us human.

You should look the article up and read it. The studies cited are very interesting and there are a couple of really great graphics, one outlining the how and why of lying and another that shows when we are most likely to lie, according to age. The basic reasons for lying are broken into three main categories: to protect yourself, to promote yourself and to influence others. The self-promotion section is the largest, with self-protection close behind and influence and unclear reasoning taking very small percentages, apiece. Earlier in the scene, when Betty realizes that Judy has misled the two men, Judy justifies her actions saying, “(I did it) because it’s good business. You can’t leave everything up to fate. Just like honesty needs a little plus, fate needs a little push.”

Judy must have a pretty youthful outlook. Studies show that the propensity to lie, not surprisingly, takes a fairly significant spike in ages 13-17, slowly tapering off as we mature from there. That makes sense, given that is the time we begin to separate from our parents, becoming more aware of ourselves as individuals and how we fit into the societal puzzle. It’s hard to learn yourself and how you want others to see you, so it is not surprising that teens would be more likely to develop angles in presentation.

As a hobby/previously professional photographer, I’ve long been aware of the way that changing angles can change an image. Just the other day I was trying to snap a picture of my favorite spot to sit in my yard. It includes a couple of chairs with some really pretty flowers blooming around them, and I found myself carefully rearranging the chairs and changing my angle in order to exclude the shabby outbuilding and clutter that I happily ignore while I am enjoying the spot. In order to best represent how the spot feels for me, I had to change the angle and leave out the parts that I wouldn’t want others to see. I lie to myself about the clutter while I’m sitting there, so why wouldn’t I lie to others in representing it?

I was thinking recently about the “act as if” movement, similar to the “fake it ’til you make it” idea that if you pretend to be confident and capable you will eventually achieve it. I realized that this is basically a form of lying, a way of angling the truth in hopes of promoting or protecting ourselves or influencing others until it becomes a reality. Interestingly, the “act as if” concept is considered to have foundation in Aristotle’s pronouncement that a virtuous life is created by doing virtuous things. In other words, he seemed to believe that if we want to be virtuous we must pretend to be virtuous until it becomes a habit. Are we really that terrible as humans? As I look at the troublesome clutter of various parts of my life I wonder if we can, in fact, benefit from being more honest with ourselves and those around us about our flaws. What if our propensity to angle out the bad stuff is the very thing that allows them to live on? It is something to consider as we continue to try and perfect ourselves. So I ask again, what is your angle?

Monica Sheppard is a freelance graphic designer, beekeeper, mother and community supporter living in Rome.

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