Last month, in just a minor example of what appears to be a national trend of culturally sanctioned duplicity, Madonna told Matt Lauer on the "Today" show that she was not pregnant. This was untrue.

A lot of people already knew that she was pregnant, and she ended up reversing her claim shortly thereafter. In any case, the real event seemed not the coming arrival of Madonna's second child but the spirit in which her denial was received. I caught another talk show the same day in which the hosts applauded Madonna's lack of candor. "He was right to ask, and she was right to lie," they said.

According to them, Lauer was just doing his job, and Madonna's fib was an understandable attempt to protect her privacy. No one seemed to care that Madonna had lied on national television, and the exchange was nothing if not an ironic turn on the soul-bearing celebrity culture that Madonna has helped create.

The bald-faced lie has not only lost its stigma; it has become a staple of self-preservation.

It was inevitable that an era of rampant confessionalism would give way to an era of rampant lying. In a culture that celebrates damage control more than discretion, the bald-faced lie has not only lost its stigma; it has become a staple of self-preservation. That's because when confessions aren't off limits, neither are the questions that invite them. Inquiries that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago--how's your sex life? how much money do you make? are you gay?--are now a matter of course in the private and public sphere alike. The phrase "no comment" seems quaint. Though there was a time when refusing to answer a question connoted a sense of dignity, keeping mum is now, more often than not, a self-incriminating act. The result is that we're forced to lie.

When private matters become subjects of public discussion, or events beyond our control put us in situations that misrepresent our true natures or intentions, lying may indeed be the dignified, even responsible, course of action. Many women don't want to announce their pregnancies until they've passed the first trimester, which is one reason why it's considered rude to ask someone if she's pregnant. In choosing not to disclose her pregnancy, Madonna was acting no differently than a lot of women. The problem is that she was asked the question on national television, and her effort to implement the discretion afforded to private citizens resulted in an outright lie.

While a majority of us carry on our daily lives without press coverage, the media's edict that no subject is off limits has seeped into private mentalities as well.

Questions that no one would have dared ask their best friends a generation ago are now frequently posed to near strangers. I've had people I barely know inquire about my income, my sex life, and whether I would ever have an abortion. And what's really alarming is that I've felt compelled to answer. Too often, saying, "That's none of your business" doesn't occur to me until it's too late. That's because "none of your business" is a phrase that has been dropped from the American vocabulary.

The man who asked me if I would ever have an abortion was an elderly relative of a man I was dating. And because I was a guest in his home, and I got the impression that I would instantly fall out of family favor if I said anything but no, I told him what he wanted to hear.

This is an incident I think about a lot, with some regrets. While I didn't exactly lie, I said something that might have been a lie, and in so doing, I failed to uphold a cause I strongly believe in. The truth is that I was in no position to answer that question. I've never been pregnant, I'm pro-choice, and I believe that abortion is a complicated, private matter that can't be boiled down to a hypothetical yes or no. Having never been faced with the decision, I have no idea whether I could have an abortion. I wish I'd said as much to him, but it was clear that any attempt to answer truthfully would have been interpreted as waffling at best and rationalizing at worst.

There was once a time when we got face-lifts and smiled coyly when friends commented on how "rested" we looked.

I also wish I'd told him his question was inappropriate, but we all know what that would have implied. At that moment, his mind was operating under the same rhetorical principles used by the media, which is that "no" means no and "no comment" means yes.

Where once we were silent, now we lie. Though it's hard to imagine, there was once a time when we got face-lifts and smiled coyly when friends commented on how "rested" we looked. There was time when we could buy a house without fielding inquiries as to the price and when women could announce their pregnancies when they felt comfortable doing so rather than when someone asked.

Matt Lauer may have been doing his job when he asked Madonna if she was pregnant, but his job description reflects an attitude that's making liars out of us all. When denying the truth becomes an act of self-preservation, we're forced to trade our morality for our dignity, and that's a sacrifice that ultimately erodes more than it preserves. Perhaps we would do well to reacquaint ourselves with the old maxim, "Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no lies." Sometimes, inquiring minds simply don't need to know.

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