THE crime should fit the penalty. Well, that's my theory.
Look at it this way. You know you’re going to get a hiding if you raid the biscuit bin and get caught so don't take two or three, nick the lot. That makes the crime worthy of the punishment.
My earliest recollections of a serious punishment are sunrise sharp but I have no memory of the crime. It was at Ripponlea State School when we were living in East St Kilda, and I must have been about nine or ten at the time.
Ripponlea State had a strict rule of gender segregation. The boys’ play yard was on one side of the school building and the girls’ on the other. This massive red brick building (well, it seemed massive to me at the time) acted as the great wall of separation. I cannot recall cyclone fencing or razor wire being in place. I think the sheer horror of being caught fraternising with girls was enough to keep us boys under self-regulation.
I can only guess at my crime: maybe not owning up to a misdemeanour or perhaps constant inattention. I was fascinated by pigeons and spent a great deal of time staring out windows at flocks that feasted on food scraps discarded by boys more intent on playing marbles than eating lovingly prepared lunches.
My punishment? I was to spend the afternoon with the Year 3 girls.
Three things I recall most vividly. One: I was allocated a seat next to Pamela Abbot, who happened to run a close second to my dreams about pigeons. The cruellest of coincidences, or was it? Two: at afternoon play time I was swamped by girls who kindly tried to include me in their games and relieve my embarrassment. Three: despite their good intentions I spent the entire time in abject misery. I wonder if my teacher had any idea how severe was the judgement handed down that day.
My parents told me at an early age that telling lies was the biggest sin. Even fibs were frowned upon. Of course most of my lies were really fibs. Then there were whoppers, which I placed somewhere between fibs and lies.
The way I figured it a fib is a lie devoid of malice. Our dog Charlie is an excellent exponent of the fib. That innocent look of "Who, me!" when we find a grubby bone tucked into the back of the couch. The whopper is commonly employed by fishermen when describing the size of the fish they may or may not have been caught yesterday and is more artful.
But a lie – ah, now that is something else altogether. That puts you in the big time.
If you try one of those in a court of law, you may well finish up in the slammer for committing perjury. Most of us cite politicians as experts in the employment of the lie, probably just ahead of used car salesmen. Sure, they break promises they know they cannot keep, then sanctify their decisions because the end justifies the means.
Machiavelli said that if rulers accepted that their every action must pass moral scrutiny, they would without fail be defeated by an opponent who submitted to no such moral test. So, for many politicians, the lie is a survival tool. We should know not to put too much trust in what they say or take them seriously.
But, like fibs and whoppers, some lies are acceptable, forgivable and even necessary.
In Lars von Trier's 2011 film Melancholia, a planet is heading towards Earth and we are about to be obliterated. The final scene is of a mother and her sister. They build a skeletal stick house for their small boy to make him feel secure, move one of the sticks as if closing a door and sit down in a circle holding hands to await the end.
For the boy it is a matter of trust – and it is a beautiful lie.