The Lie of the Land

Language and how we use it.
April 2 1998 3:30 AM

The Lie of the Land

Equivocations, deceptions, fibs, and other forms of not telling the truth.

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"I have a very clear memory of the meeting," declares one central figure (Bill Clinton) in Washington's ongoing sexual and legal battles, "and I told the truth."

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"I proceeded to explain to [Newsweek's Michael Isikoff]," says another figure (onetime Kathleen Willey friend Julie Hiatt Steele), "that Ms. Willey had asked me to lie to support her version of the event, and that I had, in fact, done so."

"There are people who talk a lot," observes a third participant (Monica Lewinsky's lawyer William H. Ginsburg), "and as part of that scenario, peccadilloes, they may tell fibs, lies, exaggerations, oversell."

USA Today, summing up the experience of the past two months, asked in a headline, "Who can claim truth or objectivity anymore?"

Ah, that old question. "What is truth?" demanded Pontius Pilate (John 18:38) during his interrogation of Jesus. He received no reply. Perhaps because it is less accessible, or at least less prevalent, the act of truth telling has garnered far less attention in popular speech than the act of lying. In Roget's Thesaurus, words associated with falsity outnumber those associated with veracity by about 5-to-1. Synonyms for truth telling are formal and dull: candor, honesty, veridity. Those for conveying falsehoods are colorful and ebullient: equivocation, mythomania, casuistry, quackery, buncombe, cajolery, duplicity, perjury, bamboozlement, pettifoggery, sugarcoating, a crock, a con job, twaddle.

The gravitational pull of falsity is so powerful that even words and phrases that start out as truth reinforcers tend, over time, to acquire the opposite connotation. Who is not immediately put on guard when confronted with statements introduced by "Frankly ...," "To be perfectly honest ...," or "The fact of the matter is ..."? When Ginsburg described certain testimony as being "totally reliable," the words were served up in press accounts (as, unavoidably, they also are here) within an isolated setting of quotation marks, which function as a stage wink. The ostensible truth multiplier 1,000 percent (from George McGovern's 1972 avowal of support for his running mate, Thomas F. Eagleton, whom he claimed to support "1,000 percent" and then summarily dropped from the ticket) is now an ironic synonym for "don't bet on it" or even "not on your life."

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I n much the same way, categorical denials have suffered an irreversible erosion of face value, owing to their routine issuance by bombastic politicians, aggrieved miscreants, and representatives of liberation armies and international terrorists. (Categorical denial, with its serration of easy consonants and regularly spaced vowels, seems to be within pronunciation range of all non-English speakers.) Once intended to endow a denial with the qualities of pervasiveness and totality, the adjective categorical ("absolute," "unqualified," "explicit") now raises doubts and eyebrows. The British poet and screenwriter James Lasdun's recent protestation--"I categorically deny being a neo-formalist"--plants the suspicion that his sympathies are, indeed, neoformalist. Responding to rumors that Disney was planning to add new sequences to the classic animated film Snow White, a spokesman for the company declared, "I categorically deny that we would ever touch Snow White."

Still, the idea of "category" as it applies to lies is worth exploring--and leads into the realm of theology. Say what one will about Catholic theology, it offers a cosmological taxonomy in which all things have an appointed place and a well-thought-out definition, rendered with lapidary minimalism. Truth, for instance, is helpfully defined in The Catholic Encyclopedia as the "accordance or conformity between what is asserted and what is," or "the conformity of intellection with being." Falsity, in turn, is the "deformity of intellection and being."

In the weeks ahead it will be important to maintain clear theological distinctions (per the Encyclopedia) among various kinds of lies. There is the mendacium jocosum--the "lie told in jest." A second type of lie is the mendacium officiosum, or "officious lie," whose purpose is to achieve some useful end or to prevent some distinct harm. (Examples might include a doctor misleading a terminally ill patient or a prisoner lying to enemy interrogators.) A third type of lie is the mendacium perniciosum, or "pernicious lie," a lie that is intended to do harm.

A fourth type of lie might be called the mendacium universalis, the "universal or endemic lie." This is the type of lie--if it is, indeed, a lie--that we seem to be encountering most frequently these days. If a lie, by definition, becomes a lie only in the context of communication (speech, writing, gesture), and if a lie is immoral because it destroys the fundamental trust that makes communication possible--if all this is so, can a lie be told in a context where communication is understood to have no objective value to begin with? I give the floor back to the theologians:

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