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The Lies We Tell

“Say the truth no matter what,” advises Jordan Peterson in a podcast with Joe Rogan. That advice sounded patronizing to me, a teacher, a person whose vocation is to tell the truth. Had I ever stood in front of my students and refused to tell the truth? Had I ever deliberately tried to deceive them? I assumed Peterson was speaking to those shady political groups or prosperity preachers who spread fake news and false promises. As a Christian and classical educator, I was firmly committed to speaking the truth no matter what.

My guiltlessness was challenged, however, when Peterson defended himself in a viral interview with Cathy Newman by saying, “I’m very, very, very careful with my words.” Was there a connection between saying the truth and being very careful with one’s words? Was it not enough to be committed to the truth? Must I examine my daily habits of speaking and give account for actual words? With this new criterion, I began listening to myself speak and was genuinely surprised to find that not only did I say precious little of the truth, much of my communication was false. Listening carefully to others revealed that I was not alone in my mythomania, for the subjectivism that permeates our thinking manifests itself in the many ways that we all avoid the truth with our speech.

The most ubiquitous way we lie is through imprecision. Instead of describing an event honestly, we say that “it was like a really incredible experience or something.” If asked about a work of art, all we can say is that “it was amazing” or “it really left an impression on me.” As image bearers, we can name and categorize; we can create with our words, and we are called to steward that power responsibly and precisely. If we’re not willing or able to evaluate a book and connect our words with reality, then we can at least be honest and say, “I loved the book. I can’t explain why just now; I’ll need to think about it and get back with you.” Truth comes from precision. What would have happened (or not happened) if Athanasius’ mom allowed him the habit of saying “like” and “or something” at the end of every sentence? The pass we give ourselves and others, allowing imprecision, keeps us from learning the habits that uncover the truth.

Imprecision keeps us from setting and achieving real goals. William Wilberforce’s primary goal was the suppression of the slave trade. He wanted his country to stop kidnapping, transporting, and selling human beings into slavery. We call for unnamed agents to empower undefined communities, find their voices, be themselves, and create spaces to be the change they want in the world. If we cannot name precisely what we want to happen, then no one can challenge our ideas, and the mission will be stunted or misguided. Our imprecision in mission drafting may even be a dishonest way of avoiding accountability for failure.

Imprecision makes us all pseudo experts who opine confidently about every topic we’ve ever read a headline about online. The expert, neither a historian nor a scientist, knows that the introduction of caffeine in England caused the Industrial Revolution and that lavender oil wards off viruses and vampires. We are not careful to cite sources; we simply appropriate anything in print as if we have done our own experimentation and research, creatively filling in any missing information as we go. After watching Hamilton, my husband asked if the representation of Hamilton being driven by ambition was correct. I almost began to rattle off everything I could think of on the subject, but because of my new resolution for truth telling, I said sadly, “I know very little about Alexander Hamilton.”

Imprecision is the enemy of fruitful debate. Being a debate mom has taught me that arguments (debatable assertions) are not evidence. If you’re going to argue that Harry Potter is demonic or that Shakespeare is overrated, you should be prepared to explain what reasoning you used to arrive at that conclusion, what authorities agree with you, and where you got your information. In other words, don’t speak with conviction about assertions you are merely repeating. Generally, memes and posts on colored backgrounds do not contain supported arguments. They are worse than silly; they are dishonest.

One of the most insidious lies of argumentation is the straw man fallacy where the debater (or blogger) presents the two sides of an argument as false extremes that no one would agree with and then courageously lays out the obvious moral high ground. Interestingly, many of the comments say, “This is exactly what I was thinking.” Misrepresenting your neighbor is lying. Slander, complaining, flattery, exaggeration, hasty Yelp reviews—these are all ways we lie about ourselves, God, and others.

God hates lying. In the New Testament, the transformed believer puts away lying and speaks the truth, while liars end up on the wrong side of the heavenly gates. Truth is frightening, which is why we prefer living in a false, vague, comfortable world. The prophet Jeremiah was terrified to speak the truth, and we should be, too. Fuzzy facts and weak arguments make us feel smug, but truth confronts and humbles us, demanding repentance and burdening us with responsibility. It’s not surprising that Diogenes wandered long through the streets of Athens looking for one honest man.

Lying is violence. This year our family watched the films Mr. Jones, Just Mercy, Richard Jewell, and the TV series Chernobyl, which show the horrific consequences of telling lies. Telling the truth is pricey, and we’ll have to pay with our reputations, our careers, and maybe even our lives. The road to truth telling begins with our everyday speech, and as teachers, we’ll need to speak knowing that we will give account, not for our commitment to truth, but for every careless word. We must model for our students how to be very, very, very careful with our words.

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