USING OUR WORDS: Wisely declining to "call lies 'lies!'"


Part 4—Tales of tribal prejudgment:
We noticed an intriguing contretemps of a type in today's New York Times.

Atop hard-copy page A20, our eyes fell upon Linda Qiu's latest FACT CHECK. We spotted a disagreement of sorts between Qiu's first paragraph and the headline which topped her piece:
QIU (7/27/17): 7 Falsehoods at 3 Events In 1 Day

In just a few hours on Tuesday, President Trump made seven misleading statements: about Middle East politics, during a joint news conference with Prime Minister Saad Hariri of Lebanon; about veterans affairs reforms, in remarks to “American heroes”; and about jobs and health care, to supporters in Ohio. Here’s an assessment.
Uh-oh! The editor who wrote the headline advertised seven falsehoods. But in her text, Qiu had referred to seven "misleading statements."

Is a misleading statement a falsehood? Moses produced no tablet resolving this question, but in general we'd have to say no.

A communicator can thoroughly mislead an audience while making perfectly accurate statements. Generally speaking, words like "misleading" entered the language, long ago, to offer us an alternative to describing a statement as "false."

(Such distinctions are also widely observed in the world's several other languages, including the earlier languages out of which English emerged.)

Just for the record, what kinds of statements did Qiu actually cite? Were the statements misleading, or false?

That isn't our point of concern today. But she specifically describes one claim by Donald J. Trump as "false," another as a "stretch."

We'd say that Qiu may have stretched and misled a bit too, for example in her sixth boldfaced claim. In that sixth presentation, she also revived her wondrously confusing formulation in which "[l]egal permanent residents who haven’t worked in the United States for 10 years are not eligible for food assistance or Medicaid within the first five years of entering the country."

That statement is wonderfully confusing. Would you call it misleading? False?

Our language gives us many ways to describe statements which are false and/or misleading or otherwise somehow bogus. Before our week is through, we plan to visit immortal Austin, reviewing some of the ruminations in his masterful books (How to Do Things With Words; Sense and Sensibilia) and in some of his most famous lectures or essays (Three Ways of Spilling Ink; A Plea for Excuses).

In effect, Austin was Wittgenstein gifted with clarity, but that's not our topic today. Today, we want to review a recent statement which seemed to be blindingly obvious.

The statement drew applause from the world's brightest people at a recent high-end lecture. The estimable Masha Gessen delivered the statement as part of the Arthur Miller Lecture at the 2017 PEN World Voices Festival.

Her statement seemed to be blindingly obvious. Unable to restrain themselves, the crowd burst into applause:
GESSEN (5/7/17): ...we have to become guardians of our language. We have to keep it alive and working. That means being very intentional about using words.

That means, for example, calling lies "lies."

I am actually—

For background, see yesterday's report.

Gessen said we should call lies "lies." The audience burst into applause.

It should be said that Gessen was specifically prescribing what journalists, including reporters, should do. As she continued, she specifically scolded National Public Radio for failing, indeed for refusing as a general matter of policy, to call lies "lies."

Should reporters call lies "lies?" The answer may seem obvious, but let's reason by way of analogy.

Presumably, reporters should call bank robberies "bank robberies." But before they do, they should probably ascertain that a bank has actually been robbed.

If they aren't yet sure of that fact, there are ways to report their uncertainty. They can refer to an alleged, apparent or reported bank robbery, after which they can describe the state of the evidence.

In the matters Gessen was discussing, should NPR have described Donald J. Trump's misstatements and apparent misstatements as "lies?"

Some of the misstatements in question seemed to be truly remarkable howlers. But did that mean that news reporters at NPR should have described them as "lies?"

The network had explained its reticence on several occasions, not always with perfect clarity. As Gessen continued, she hurried past NPR's explanation, then issued several semi-howlers of her own:
GESSEN (continuing directly): The NPR argument is that the definition of "lie," their argument for not using the word "lie" when describing what Donald Trump does, is that the definition of "lie" involves intent. A lie is a statement made with the intention to deceive. And NPR does not have conclusive information on Trump's intent.

The problem is that the euphemism "misstatement" clearly connotes a lack of intent, as though Trump simply took an accidental wrong step.

And the thing is that words exist in time, right? The word "misstatement" suggests a singular occurrence, thereby eliding Trump's history of lying. The word "misstatement" as applied to Trump is actually a lie.

Again, the audience erupted in applause. But here on our own sprawling campus, we observed a different reaction:

Our youthful analysts were loudly wailing rattling the chains with which we help them resolve to stay seated, and fully attentive, at their spartan study carrels.

It should be noted that Gessen never quoted anything that had ever been said by anyone at NPR. As in her native Russia, so too here:

Our public discourse tends to die when major figures treat themselves to such unfortunate shortcuts.

That said, it it true as a general matter? As a general matter, does the word "misstatement" suggest that the misstatement in question was uttered in good faith, was just "an accidental wrong step?"

We have no idea why you'd say that. It's abundantly clear that NPR's Mary Louise Kelly was suggesting no such thing in the NPR report about Trump which launched a thousand semantic ships. But if a reporter is concerned about that possible connotation, she is of course free to say this:

She is free to refer to Donald J. Trump's "extreme misstatement, which flies in the face of apparently obvious photographic evidence."

In short, she can use her words!

How about that other claim? If someone refers to a "misstatement" by Trump, does that word "suggest a singular occurrence, thereby eliding Trump's history of lying?"

We don't know why you'd say that. If a reporter had that concern, she could simply say this:

She could refer to Donald J. Trump's "latest misstatement, one in a puzzling list of misstatements on this particular point."

Once again, she can use her words. There are many to choose from!

Gessen spoke to an audience of writers. Earlier, in an unfortunate moment, she'd made the ultimate tribal claim, saying that she and her fellow writers "invariably" act in good faith:
GESSEN: Now, we writers have often spent time, much of it in the late twentieth century, questioning the ability of words to reflect facts, and the existence of objective facts themselves.

There are those who have, whether with glee or with shame, observed a sort of relationship between those post-modern exercises and Trump’s post-truth, post-language ways. But I think this reflects a basic misunderstanding, or perhaps a willing conflation of intentions.

When writers and academics question the limits of language, it is invariably an exercise that grows from a desire to bring more light into the public sphere, to arrive at a shared reality that is more nuanced than it was yesterday. To focus ever more tightly on the shape, weight, and function of any thing that can be named, or to find names for things that have not, in the past, been observed.
Good grief! "When writers and academics question the limits of language, it is invariably an exercise that grows from a desire to bring more light into the public sphere?"

We writers "invariably" act in good faith, with good intentions? If we might borrow from Michael Corleone:

Who's being naive now, Kay? Simply put, we humans aren't like that.

Gessen told her audience of writers that they "invariably" act in good faith. This is the kind of tribal thinking which can betray the finest of minds and the best of souls, especially at a time like this, when tribal feeling runs high.

Should NPR have referred to Donald Trump's statements as "lies?" They had said they couldn't state, as a matter of fact, that the misstatements in question were lies. Gessen blew past this sensible analysis, then made some peculiar claims of her own.

For our money, old patterns should hold in this area. Reporters should be very reluctant about describing misstatements as "lies."

Meanwhile, in the case of Donald J. Trump, it seems to us there's an obvious basis for a special reluctance. When people seem to be mentally ill, do we normally say that they've lied?

Tomorrow: Regarding possible illness or dementia, Slate pair seem to observe two guilds' rules


  1. "I am going to protect the LGBT community."
    "Transgender people are now barred from the military."
    "I will give you better, cheaper healthcare that covers everyone."
    "Senate, psss this bill that kicks millions off of healthcare and raises premiums."
    "China is a currency manipulator."
    "China isn't a currency manipulator."
    "I and my campaign didn't meet with Russians."
    "so what if I met with Russians?"
    "You won't believe what the investigators are finding in Hawaii"
    "[crickets]" infinitum, Bob.
    I'm sure Trump really, really meant all those things when he first said them. No con job involved. No, not at all. And I'm really, really sure those 19th century snake-oil salesmen really, really believed their tonics would cure diseases.
    In the face of Trump, the broken-souled man with gigantic powers to do harm, you're upset that Qiu makes a possibly confusing statement? And Gessen isn't allowed to demonstrate Trump's abuse of language, to show how he uses it to deceive? How many "misstatements" is Trump allowed by you Bob? After a while, a pattern emerges, a con, a fraud...a giant lie. And his "misstatement" (ie broken promises? lies? oops...) have huge real-world consequences in the lives of millions. Compared to that, what power do Qiu and Gessen wield?

    1. All this was known before the election. Too many people sat on their butts.

    2. Re: "I am going to protect the LGBT community."

      I think back to all I did to avoid being drafted and sent to Vietnam. Prohibiting a certain group of people from serving in the military IS a way of protecting them.

    3. Don't be an ass. The military is a gateway to training and education and even citizenship for less privileged young people. See the world, be all you can be, is literal for them. Denying thmose opportunities to kids who are gay is wrong. Trump is not thinking about them or their best interests when he does a stunt like this.

    4. You should definitely join, Anon. Be all you can be, and, perhaps, even learn about the difference between 'gay' and 'transgender'...

    5. What does LGBT mean to you?

      Why are you even here?

    6. "What does LGBT mean to you?"

      Same as to every one else, I suppose: four letters, associated with some mildly annoying liberal-establishment bullshit no one cares about.

  2. "Unlike Obama, I won't be taking vacations and playing golf all the time."
    "I've accomplished more than any other president in history."

    1. I certainly haven't seen any pressident scaring the fucking establishment mafia like this one is. Tremendous accomplishment, as far as I'm concerned.

    2. And minorities, Mao. Don't forget how much he scares minorities. too.

      Oops, i now see you did notice this by your, "Tremendous accomplishment, as far as I'm concerned" quote.
      My bad. Carry on.

    3. As long as Wall Street isn't the establishment, Mao.

  3. Once again, Bob explores the mare's nest. Yeah, yeah, intent makes the lie. Problem is, that's a nearly impossible standard by which measure virtually no one has ever lied at any time in human history.

    Thus all lies become deniable unless the liar admits bad intent. And how often do liars confess to bad intent?

    Hitler's Ghost: "I never lied to you about Jews drinking the blood of gentile children - because I believed it quite sincerely!"

    Spirit of Charles Ponzi: "I never lied about your investment; at the time, I truly believed it just might work!"

    Tricky Dick: "I am not a crook. And I believe that with all my heart."

    Down the rabbit hole we go - intent can never be proven, thus no one who hasn't admitted bad intent can EVER be framed a liar. Seriously, what other conclusion can be drawn? Although, let me add a personal qualification and suggestion: if it walks, swims, and quacks like a duck....

    1. Exactly. This is why it's a sinkhole for reporters in particular and the rest of us in general to jump so quick to label them lies. He may have intent but how can we prove it? He also may be crazy or apathetic ie not really lying but just off his ducking rocker. Why not stick with what we know? They are bogus, untrue statements.

    2. But now we're in the guilt/not guilty territory - as every jury knows, there is no legal declaration of "innocence", there's just the notion that guilt can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
      I'd suggest that the reasonable doubt principle should apply to lying as well. At this point, (and even many of Trump's most fervent supporters agree on this--they just don't care) Trump's untruthful utterances must be called lies because he contradicts HIMSELF so often; in other words, when he denies having said something AFTER hearing the tape, he is lying. With Trump, intent means nothing, because his intentions are constantly shifting and reshaping themselves given a moment's expediency. And to hew to some anal retentive notion that we all must cease to use the one word that describes a pattern of egregious behavior so prevalent today is the perfect example of foolish consistency.
      It reminds me of the debate I had many years ago with my long dead grandmother concerning the nominative case - she insisted that one should never enter a room and identify oneself with "it's me" - but that grammar must be served. Only "It is I" would suffice. I offered that if I walked into my college classroom announcing, "It is I" everyone in the room, including the professor, would howl with laughter.

    3. It is a fact that Trump is a liar. Journalists are in the business of stating facts, not splitting hairs.

  4. Bob does not intend to lie to us about Trump. He sincerely believes liberal media personalities are
    to blame for him being President. And that their hefty salaries hsve caused them to stray.

  5. Trump is fine, the guy speaks the way ordinary people do. Which surely is preferable to the typical robotic focus-group-tested politician-speak. And the establishment media are running a smear campaign, and a witch hunt. And that's all there is to it, and everyone in (as well as outside) the country knows it.

    1. Nope. Wrong. Trump is a sack of feces. Unfit to serve as bathroom attendant anywhere in the world. And that's what everyone knows.

    2. I disagree about the smear campaign
      comment but Trump does speak poorly like so many of us do.I think a president should represent 320 million americans in a more distinguished manner

    3. We are living in times of PR technologies, when smooth-talking is associated (and for a very good reason) with telling lies.

      Indeed, those meaningless, focus-group-tested, lawyers approved, and designed to mislead, with 'plausible deniability' statements that you call 'distinguished' are usually the real - professional - lies.

      People are tired of bullshit, endless Orwellian bullshit.

    4. "Indeed, those meaningless, focus-group-tested, lawyers approved, and designed to mislead, with 'plausible deniability' statements that you call 'distinguished' are usually the real - professional - lies.

      People are tired of bullshit, endless Orwellian bullshit."
      Lol, so rube tested, Limpball, Insanity, Freitfart, Faux News approved bullshit (designed to mislead!) is ok then? You must be Dave in Cal's friend. You won't convince anyone of here of your nonsense. Why don't you go back to the swamp.

  6. I haven't visited this site in a long time but I've never forgotten Bob's justified tirade about so many in the media, both liberal and conservative,being lazy and following the "script". Even if I agree with the opinion of a reporter I am constantly reading what seems to be the agreed upon "take" on so many events that are signs of laziness when I wish I could learn something that I don't learn from headlines or the first few minutes of a news broadcast.I should expand my reading habit perhaps and search for the better writers and reporters.

  7. I am not sure if intent is the first or best way to determine a lie. I think it should simply be if the supposed liar knows they are saying something that is not true regardless of why they say it.I agree it would still be tricky to be sure the person knows they are not being truthful. A white lie has intent but is still a lie. I don't get why intent has anything to do with it.

  8. Heh Enter Trumps newest nic...STRETCH!

  9. We're back to the age-old question: Are Conservatives liars, or just too ignorant of the truth to know what it is?

  10. I have a fundamental difference with Bob on this. Being intentionally misleading is lying. In fact, that's the basically the second listing for "lie" at -- "something intended or serving to convey a false impression; imposture". And it's usually pretty easy to tell that someone is being purposely misleading or evasive. This kind of hair splitting lets dishonest people off the hook. Even in my small town, we had a group of people opposing a land development project. They never technically said or wrote anything untrue. But they left out enough information and worded things in such a way that they convinced many people that the project was going to be much larger than it was. We need to hold people to a higher standard in public statements than simply "technically true." Sometimes wildly misleading statements are "technically true."

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