Is lying by omission a crime? Osanota is an old Urhobo word, that means ‘selector of words’ [for presentation]. My father used that word to describe those known to be masters and copycats in the art of omitting key details of witness from audiences. All narrators tell incomplete stories. They are human, after all. The limits of time, space, witness, language, culture and consequences offer them little choice. Hence, problems arise when narrators have choices; facts become fair game in their creations. Omissions!
Omissions, good or bad, distort facts and verify fictions by sheer absence. The wizardry of omissions in stories is that they are extraordinary tools. Moreover, they create and sustain desires by altering perceptions. Omissions worried my father very much. He was philosophical about communications in general and influenced me a great deal. When he attended school precis was as scary as arithmetic, algebra, and geometry but he was the best at it. He felt relaxed summarising a story everyone in his class knew, but was sceptical about ones only the teller knew. I try not to worry myself about omissions.
I met a friend in January 2020, dashing to buy high fashion shirts (three for £135 at half-price) with inordinate zeal. As of September 2021, he had worn none of them. Did the Covid lockdown prevent him from wearing them? Indeed, his response was interesting. The discovery he didn’t need the shirts came months after buying them. The adverts hadn’t informed him only a small selection of men wear those shirts as dress code. Omissions are thus priceless instruments for marketing in a consumer obsessed world needed to keep them buying. Political spin-doctors also use omissions in public relations coups. Many people pull their faces from professional persuasion but how successful are they at such abstinence? Try telling a girl you met four days ago, “I love you.” Those three words have eased the way for the fulfilment of many a mercenary intention and now scare-off targets not seduce them. Despite their purpose, omissions often make target audiences feel stupid after the fact, and who the winners and losers are. Knowing the motives of communicators is a useful filter for more astute audiences. Have you seen the face of a proponent caught out for his omissions?
We have all experienced cunning folk who tell us much and omit little about themselves. Yet, looking back, if we had known about their tiny omissions sooner, our living experiences with them would be different. “You never asked,” or “I thought you knew,” are classic excuses of the cunning. Cunning people always know what information to share and not to share. Nevertheless, silence has saved us in tricky situations and frank statements have ruined things of value. Thus, no one will deny omissions are useful and unavoidable. But they are efficient corrupters too. Creators of deliberate omissions hand costs to others and keep the benefits for themselves; the corrupt and the cunning thrive on it.
My father, Dara, a respected arbiter in his home community in Urhoboland would issue a warning before he began a proceeding or proclaimed its verdict.
“No one gives a moment-by-moment account of a mere seedling growing into an enormous mango tree. Only the splendour of the full-grown plant or its plentiful, tasty fruit. Or the hornbills that peck its fruits or the lightning that struck it last year are memorable,” he affirmed.
I never came upon anyone who disagreed with his warning. It was his pre-paid escape from responsibility for the relentless costs of verdict errors. Dara further enhanced his smart escape by encouraging his townsfolk to know the crooked effects of omissions. The court where he presided over cases in dry season was open air and attracted hundreds of townsfolk depending on the trial. The court also doubled as a pulpit for arbiters, elders, and chiefs. Believe it or not, I learned my mashed-up vocabulary there.
Dara was of average height and average build. He wore an ever-ebony afro, had a long face, eyes that were often blank, a calm aura, and walked with a quick gait. Most other arbiters would swagger everywhere as slow as they spoke, but not Dara. Dara was sedentary and looked like a carpenter fixated on perfection if you took notice of his use of peripheral vision, not a magistrate. It was only when you heard his questions, rejections, admissions, and in a build up to his verdicts, you would nod in approval to his acumen. He was a man who had no presence till he spoke, then it was all him. Dara’s trademark comment was, Sheh!, his abrupt rejection of lies and deceptions.
The constant stream of cases Dara handled was an immense burden of responsibility for him. The few other arbiters would avoid cases or agree to be assistants in cases Dara would not refuse. I wonder why he accepted them without complaint or burnout. Townsfolk seeking justice placed much faith in Dara’s person as arbiter and would give their best testimonies at trial to receive it. However, he decided verdicts on the evidence presented before him. His verdict became the story of the case. The decrees ‘guilty’, ‘not guilty’ and ‘acquitted’ are complete stories in themselves. People either accepted or rejected them, unless an appeal was possible and successful. Nothing was more effective in overturning verdicts on appeal than the exposure of omissions in previous evidence. Nonetheless, trial or appeal, the verdict was binding.
On the strength of catching out omissions with high efficiency inseparable from a reputation of honesty, fairness, character, and honour, and a poetic oratory, it was no surprise he was in high demand as an arbiter in Western Urhobo communities. At the time, Western Urhobo was the old Ethiope Local Government Area, comprising of seven large clans or kingdoms; Abraka, Agbon, Idjerhe, Oghara, Okpe, Uvwie, and Udu. That translated into scores of communities. When Dara had a near fatal car crash, between three and four hundred well-wishers from all over Western Urhobo and much further beyond visited him daily for the nine weeks he was at Eku Baptist Hospital, Eku. So many of them came bearing gifts and cash. Men and women standing in endless queues would enter the for a couple of minutes to see Dara in a come. Most of the men and women had tears in their eyes and would cry properly somewhere on the hospital premises. Some returning home home in buses, taxis, and cars would depart with tearful faces. That was a testimony to his popularity.
In contrast, one troubling concern about Dara’s verdicts was the reactions of people to them. A few found guilty beyond reasonable doubt often gave him a lot of trouble as threats, insults, and accusations of prejudice or corruption, anything to hurt him. On the contrary, the rare casualty of erroneous judgement gave no trouble but sued for appeals. Dara handled such risks to himself and his family with a calm fearlessness. The sincere do not shrink from the aftermaths of their truths unless mighty and ruthless forces intend inflicting a very slow death on them for their audacity. Still, some even brave such. Slow deaths are more weapons of the mighty who feel entitled to enjoy the omissions of their deeds from public attention. That said, Dara knew his community was too considerate to martyr him.
Omissions in speech or writing are useful for saving time and making long clumsy stuff short and accessible. It may seem, the tendency of omissions to mislead and destroy is what worries people. Many of them learn through pain. Can you remember when omissions hurt you? Think about the wrong decisions you have made because you did not receive key information. Or the wars, elections of dismal politicians, and injustices caused by Big Men suppressing the facts. Between the range of extreme miseries and great successes, many little or great histories enter record books only because omissions were decisive in their making. In addition, sources of human conflict and chaos feed fat on omissions.
I never saw Dara counsel contenders on the harm falsehoods cause in disputes and assertions. It would not make a difference, anyway. To him, spotting falsehoods in evidence was much more important. Dara had heard too many brazen lies for so long and knew their patterns well. Furthermore, acts of excessive optimism in one’s own intelligence are worse than omissions in matters of justice. Presuming another’s guilt or innocence without all the key facts or from surface impressions produces poor judgements. Dara was so thorough in his ways, but also very easy-going and full of humour. I guess that was the dominant trait of his charm. Dara remains very popular within his community for his verdicts, modesty, and good nature, even after his passing. Why do I need a cannon to shoot my messages? Dara only needed his lips.
Few persons in our community could tell folktales better than Dara, but he preferred listening much to others narrate them and often corrected a narrator’s inaccuracies. “Oral traditions have deep meanings that are lost through careless or wilful alterations. All alterations of traditions are bad and we must discourage them,” he affirmed. A rising local musician, Odion, who became a praise singer for the wealthy, began altering folktales to flatter and redeem his clients. The community’s older folk resented Odion’s tampering with timeless traditions, but the youth embraced them. Dara and five other elders approached Odion and put an end to his misuse of oral traditions, encouraging him to create his own tales for his songs. Odion listened and made up new refreshing tales for his songs. He later sang praises to Dara in his songs. Every day, I would retell one or more of Dara’s stories or jokes, well, to myself. Please, it is not long-throat.
Are there any differences between narration or arbitration? I often asked my old man. He never answered the question. I felt he wanted me to find out for myself. I am still searching.
Dara trained me, his outspoken son, in a key lesson in the spoken word. Without discretion, the ugliness of life becomes too glaring for comfort. Our minds soon tire of blocking out the disagreeable, needless, and dreary elements of life. Everyone supposes every other person should encourage a happier world. Would this world not be a paradise if they did? Characters who use the truth against themselves as much as on others are troublemakers. Do not join them, they are wide-eyed people who have turned the truth into a battle weapon.
We want information fresh, reliable, and worthy. Therefore, truth we always demand without compromise, only to accept understatement and exaggeration better or spin even more. That’s where the edge lies, in lies. For uncertainty, surprise, and pleasure, enjoy unlimited reception in the human mind. A little less truth or rather omissions can improve persuasion. Is that not corruption too? Omissions lead to further omissions until they form messy layers of lies and ignorance, keeping things of import from the public eye. The Osanota becomes one with perfect vision in both eyes in the land of the blindfolded. “Base and aimless talk gives many an Osanota an opening into one’s mind,” he further counselled.
People of good fortune crave the certainty that their prosperity in life will continue forever. In contrast, the unlucky fear the certainty their unpleasant luck will endure as time passes fast. The fortunate and the unlucky both fear uncertainty. Uncertainty and certainty are thus the keys that open people’s minds wide to promises of certainty, to hope. Promises of heaven, healing, freedom, a better life, riches, spouses, and goal achievement are the most irresistible in human history. Only those who have no need for such promises shun them. Hope, as we know it, is now a complex and varied global industry. Everyone seeking success via hope, merchants, and seekers, is into it. There is something in it for everybody according to your means. As a result, whosoever with creative verve, can manipulate people’s emotions towards certainty and uncertainty will have them in his pocket or in his queue. Many learn the omissions hidden from them only after expending much effort and money, years and hard-earned incomes. Omissions!
Dara must have seen the dangers of the rise of incomplete stories better than anyone else in the usually conservative community of ours, and it worried him. Money had begun to change everything and was replacing good old morality. In a separate lesson to everyone else, he iterated daily, “It’s rare finding individuals who embrace every truth and its components but they exist. The greatest truth-tellers are often the biggest liars. Their lies go undetected because they spin them to match the deeper expectations of people.” The statement, without proof, made me to suspect my dad had revealed himself as a masterful liar. Dara, please forgive me and accept my libations.
No contradiction existed in the lessons Dara gave me and everyone else. In his experience, he had seen many good people suffer for their habit of consistent truth telling. Dara was trying to preserve my life in advance. But do omissions preserve anyone or anything? In my experience, omissions preserve for self as much as they ruin others.
Now, how can we best handle unavoidable omissions? A penetrating and clear mind stripped of naivete is a good start. Thank you, Dara.
Be good, not lucky