Words matter and the current lack of restraint (by both sides of our political binary system) of the word “lie” troubles me.
To be wrong, in error, or deceived is to not speak the truth. To lie is to intentionally deceive. It is to say something you know isn’t true. Those are two very different things.
Why is it important to recognize the difference between being wrong and lying?
We are all often wrong. In fact being a Calvinist means that you know you are always at least a little off on everything, and sometimes greatly off on a lot of things. The word “sin” means “missing the mark” and none of us are perfect marksmen/women.
To accuse someone of lying is
a. charging them with something more malicious than just being wrong
b. presuming to know the intentions of their heart. We can know at times that people are lying, but that usually requires some pretty detailed, specific and “insider-like” information.
I remember when Democrats were claiming that Bush lied about Iraq. I never charged Bush with lying about that war because I didn’t know what he knew and what he did not know. I believe he was wrong about WMDs, and that his judgment was faulty, but I couldn’t make the charge that he lied.
To make the charge that one is lying is a serious charge and the word should be taken seriously.
“That’s a lie” is a charge that deserves examination and the obligation to deliver evidence lies with the accuser.
“You are a liar” is a more serious charge still. It charges a person not only with telling lies (see above), but also with a pattern of lying, a more difficult charge to produce evidence for than one or a few lies. It is a charge against a persons character.
Dan noted that in some professional therapy contexts a person making such a charge is often suspected of having a personality disorder prone to that type of suspicion, paranoia or conspiracy thinking. In other words the charge often communicates more about the accuser than the accused.
Tim Keller in a number of places notes that people are quick to charge others with being liars, but when they themselves are demonstrated as having spoken lies their justification is “well my reasons were complicated.” GK Chesterton noted that most people can agree on the list things that are evil, they immediately disagree on what evils they imagine to be justifiable. In other words the standards by which they judge themselves are very different from what they extend to others. CS Lewis in Mere Christianity saw this dynamic as being directly addressed by Jesus when he commanded us to “love you neighbor as yourself”. We presume the best intentions for ourselves but hold our neighbors in suspicion.
The charge of lying or being a liar is a serious one and should be taken seriously. The use of these words without due seriousness undermines our ability to work together and reveals a lack of the kind of generosity we need in order to allow institutions to do their jobs.