Why are some people so eager to call others’ inaccurate statements “lies”?
Since we’re about a week from a major election, the word “lie” is, as usual, getting an intense work out. But this phenomenon isn’t unique to election year politics. Over and over, and in a variety of settings, I’ve observed this: people encounter what they see as falsehood and immediately leap to the judgment that someone is lying—and say so.
I’ve always found this behavior puzzling, and sometimes head-against-wall maddening. Are these accusers unable to see that everyone (including themselves) is sincerely wrong about one thing or another nearly all the time? Have they managed to miss the memo that to err is human?
Maybe it’s a failure to adjust for bias. Could they really believe that if they dislike someone, or strongly disapprove of his ideas or actions, they are entitled to judge his character by a completely different standard than they use against themselves? Could they really not realize that if they want others to judge their character generously, they should judge the character of others generously?
Or do they just not know what a lie really is?
Sadly, opportunities to talk to people in the act of leaping to the “liar!” judgment haven’t shed much light on how they arrived at that conclusion. To them, it was just obvious.
Mysteries aside, it’s clear that Christians ought to be soberly and humbly cautious about characterizing others as “lying” or “liars.” Here’s why.
Why hesitate to characterize inaccuracy as deceit
1. Because we might be wrong
Not only are we all prone to misread, mishear and misconstrue, but even when our sensory organs and brains are working correctly, we’ve got a fallen nature bending us toward self-obfuscation (Jer. 17:9).
In other words, the one who seems to be speaking falsehood might not even be incorrect, much less trying to deceive people.
2. Because communication is messy
In my experience this holds true: If you say three sentences to three people, they’ll often understand you to have said nine different things—and it probably isn’t their fault. Fortunately, not every sentence is quite that opaque, and often the “different things” hearers hear are only slightly different from what the speakers or writers meant. (Thank God for common grace!)
Still, our communication is always an approximation of what we only approximately mean, which is itself only an approximation of what we approximately understand.
During the Joe Biden-Paul Ryan debate, Biden asserted that he always says what he means. Guffaws echoed across the nation, I’m pretty sure. But he’s actually in good company. Human beings don’t even know what they mean half the time, much less say it precisely.
3. Because a lie is a deep act
Some really do seem to be confused about what makes a lie a lie—or to put it another way, what makes an untrue statement a form of evil communication. Ethicists care a lot about what conditions—if any—might justify an act of deception, but we all know that 99.9% of the time none of those conditions are present. Usually, the difference between deception and lying is irrelevant. So what differentiates a mere falsehood from a lie?
A lie is a deep act because it involves a state of intellect and a state of heart as well as an outward act. It’s like a three-legged stool. Remove any leg and you no longer have a lie.
- Leg one: a false communication
- Leg two: communicator knowledge that the communication is false
- Leg three: intent to deceive
It isn’t hard to find this view in authoritative sources. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines a lie as “an intentionally false statement.” Of the verb form, Webster says, “to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy claims the following is better: “to make an assertion that is believed to be false to some audience with the intention to deceive the audience about the content of that assertion.”
If a lie is a deep act in this way, we have at least three opportunities to misjudge whether we have witnessed one. We might be mistaken in our belief that the communication is false. We might be mistaken in thinking that the source knows it to be false, and we might be mistaken that the source intends to deceive.
4. Because “them’s fightin’ words”
Time was when a man’s word was intertwined with his honor, and his honor was worth more to him than his life. If the stories are true, the quickest way to get a gauntlet thrown (or a gun barrel blazing) was to suggest that a man might not be honest.
Maybe that was all just a lot of posturing; this, though, is not:
You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it. (NKJV, John 8:44)
To lie is to act in a kind of kinship with the Father of Lies. It’s bedfellow to murder. So if the men of the old days saw the charge of lying as being among the most serious of accusations, they were right.
5. Because everybody lies
Shouldn’t the fact that we’ve all offended in this way at one time or another make us a little less eager cast stones?
But there’s another important implication here. We understand that everyone has lied, yet we do not believe everyone is a liar. It follows then, that the accusation “he lied” is not the same as the accusation “he is a liar.” The latter is a term for a person who has a persistent pattern of disregard for the truth—an inveterate disregard for others’ right to be dealt with honestly. If we should not quickly judge someone to be lying, we should be even slower to judge someone to be a liar.