The Spectrum blog book club is discussing Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Eerdmans 2009), by Marilyn McEntyre, professor of medical humanities at UC Davis and the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program. Our book club discussion will run from March through the end of May, with a week devoted to each of the chapters. Different writer are scheduled to introduce different chapter. We invite you to join in the discussion. - Scott Moncrieff
I’ve never liked “lie.” Or “lay.” Those verbs have given me trouble since grade school, and a PhD in English hasn’t helped me solve their obstinacy. Now I mostly dodge them by composing sentences such as “I stretched out on my couch as part of my essential warm up before grading,” or “As I marked the tests, I placed each carefully facedown, lest the scores remind me of lessons unlearned.” If I must use those pesky verbs, I reach for a writer’s handbook, sort out the verbs’ differences, and insert the correct one, knowing full well I’ll repeat the exercise next time a writing task requires “lay” or “lie” or any of their relatives.
And I’m not any fonder of that other “lie.” The one Marilyn Chandler McEntyre asks us to consider. As Owen Meany says, “It gives me the shivers.” I’m fortunate in that I haven’t fallen victim to any great lies — at least none that I can recall just now. And when I try to recount any lies that I’ve undoubtedly told, the only one that springs readily to mind is a lie of omission involving a grade school teacher, a classroom clean up day, and the pointed question, “Who pushed back all the books in the bookcase after Ruthie so carefully aligned them?” In my memory, the event is complete with heads down on desks, calls for confession with a raised hand, and threats of having to stay after school until someone owned up. Granted, I may be conflating a number of grade school misdemeanors. But here goes. Fifty years later I confess: it was I. (Or was it “me”?)
To ponder lies of any sort is not a comfortable business. I try my best not to tell them — to others or to myself. (The latter, I think, may be infinitely more challenging. Consider: “Two more ginger shortbread cookies won’t hurt”; “I’ll clean out the garage tomorrow”; “Being turned down for promotion isn’t such a big deal.”) Be they little lies, in between lies, or big lies, to anyone raised reciting the Ten Commandments along with the multiplication tables, “Thou shalt not lie” still carries with it a pretty significant psychological wallop.
But calling out someone else’s lies, as Chandler McEntyre suggests we must be prepared to do, well, that opens up a whole new can of squirms. Cognitive dissonance kicks in big time. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” “Judge not that ye be not judged.” “Turn the other cheek.” “Who made you the boss of me?” The only times I can remember calling out others on a their lies involve the inevitable cases of plagiarism, reams of evidence, and subsequent denials all too familiar to the eyes and ears of composition teachers. Even then, the accusation “liar” never made it past my lips, though it probably was being screamed from the thought bubble above my head.
“There is a time to speak and a time to refrain from speaking,” Ecclesiastes advises. The trick, I suppose, is learning when to reach for the microphone and when to bite my bottom lip. I know I don’t always get it right. I suspect that temperament may have something to do with my queasiness over the very topic of lies. I will walk miles to avoid most confrontations. I don’t even like discussion or debate all that much. I switch the radio dial whenever a call-in show comes on. While I enjoy lectures, I tense up when it’s time for the question and answer period. I’m really much more comfortable when everyone just gets along., i.e., when everyone agrees with me. But I know that’s not a very realistic goal; and it’s hardly a state that leads to much growth and maturation.
That we must do it — that we must call a lie by its right name from time to time — I’ll agree. But I can’t help wishing for more advice on how best to do so. I need The Dummies’ Guide to Confronting Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. Maybe there I could find strategies like these for dealing with falsehoods and their perpetrators:
- Deal with them mindfully.
- Deal with them prayerfully (relying heavily on Anne Lamott’s first essential prayer “Help”).
- Deal with them in consultation.
- Deal with them in the service of the greater good.
- Deal with them in the service of “the least of these.”
- And never deal with them with an air of self-aggrandizement, with the goal of simply scoring points, or with anything less than complete transparency and the willingness to lay all of your cards on the table.
Beverly Matiko is Associate Professor of English and Communication at Andrews University.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5880