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:

In the extremely difficult situations being considered, there is no mutual trust or confidence to destroy. In fact, a maximum of distrust prevails between the parties, and no man in such a position could prudently take the words of the other at their face value. In such a case, words would cease, to a degree, to be a medium for the exchange of thought. Communication would be broken down, and to the extent in which communication of mind with mind has become impossible, it would be equally impossible to realize the idea of a lie. ... [It] seems incontestable that if no communication in the ordinary sense of the word is possible, there can be no lie.

Not all falsehoods, of course, are lies (the key ingredient in a lie is intentionality). Nor are all lies deceptions--some lies are told without any intention to deceive ("You've lost weight!" "Let's do lunch!"). Moreover, some deceptions are, technically, not lies, theologically speaking: "A person could tell a truth with sufficient clarity to avoid making a false statement and sufficient ambiguity and evasiveness to avoid revealing a truth which he wants to keep hidden." (For instance, if you're a presidential candidate and are asked if you have ever smoked marijuana, and you have, but only in England, you might reply that you have broken no state laws.) A statement that successfully picks its way across this dangerous terrain is said to exhibit an economy of truth, and a person who has uttered such a statement is said to have been economical with the truth. These characterizations, too, were originally conferred with a sense of professional appreciation (I first heard them on the lips of some Jesuit friends), but they have also been pulled out of truth's orbit and into the atmosphere of mendacity. Today an economy of truth sometimes just means "a lie," albeit one whose seriousness may be debatable. Julie Burchill wrote recently in the Guardian, "The idea that one party has to overcome the 'natural' resistance of the other party to sexual intercourse by a combination of gifts and being economical with the truth takes us perilously near to date-rape territory."

The concept of aneconomy of truth may have lost its purity, but it retains considerable utility. If nothing else, it adds a timely new dimension to the hortatory reminder "It's the economy, stupid."

Cullen Murphy is managing editor of the Atlantic Monthly, where his essays appear frequently. He also writes the comic strip Prince Valiant.

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