When I was a little boy my mother told me that I was a “language engineer”. I had perfected the art of speaking true statements that evoked false impressions in my listeners.
One day she took me to the side and told me clearly that simply saying true things was not telling the truth, and that what I was doing was tantamount to lying.
This incident has been a strong impulse for me to find out what “telling the truth” really means. And I must say that it is anything but trivial.
“Thou shalt not bear false witness.” – Exodus 20:16
At first glance ‘not bearing false witness’ seems like a straight-forward commandment. You simply refrain from saying what is not true. Once I gave it a little thought, though, the issue became more complex.
Bill Clinton – “It depends what your definition of ‘is’ is *smirk*”
- Did you put a dent in my car? (You ask me an umambiguous direct question.)
- No. (I answer unambiguously what I know to be untrue.)
This case is relatively simple and straight-forward, and to be honest uninteresting. It is possibly the most common case of untruths as well as the most primitive. Here, the 9th Commandment is easily applicable.
Omission, Selective Truth
Yet, we are not always asked unambiguous questions about our actions. Probably the biggest moral conundrum for truthfulness is omission and selective truth-telling.
I do something wrong.
You do not actively ask me about it.
I don’t tell you.
Since I haven’t said anything, I obviously haven’t “born false witness”.
I tell you the truth in a particular form.
You do not receive or understand the pertinent information.
The act of communicating is so much more than me blurting something out.
Since only the “sender” can verify whether the “recipient” seems to have received the information, it has to lie in the responsibility of the “sender”. And this applies in particular to truthfulness.
Saying the truth in a foreign language, or very quietly, or when the other person is preoccupied, all go against the ideal of truthfulness.
Convention, White Lies, Euphemism
- How are you doing?
Convention is often not geared completely to truthfulness. Not all truth needs to be told or heard all the time. Often people have no need or desire for your truths.
Conventions, euphemisms, bending the truth to protect others are all cases that lie on a thin red line between conforming to our culture and lying.
“Collateral Damage” – 50 school children were killed in a bombing.
“He passed on” – He died in a plane crash.
“The organization was rightsized” – 10,000 people have been fired.
In the coming posts I will give a close look to the aspects of “Omission” and “Communication” and give you a step-by-step guide of how to lie by saying true things (Kids, don’t try this at home!)