Are White Lies Harmless?

17 12 2016

by Nick Galifianakis

‘If you were hiding Jews during the second World War, and the Gestapo came to ask whether you were sheltering them, is it morally wrong to tell the Gestapo that you are not, when indeed you are?’ is a question that is often posed to discern whether lies are ever excusable. Perhaps the white lie is a more whimsical example, where a woman from whom you desire affection asks, ‘How do I look?’ in the obvious case that she is having a bad appearance day. Is it ok to lie to make her feel better or is it morally correct to always tell the truth even in ‘frivolous’ situations? These are actually not easy questions, but your answer to them will reflect your ascription to a certain type of morality, lying, and most importantly truth.

Truth. In the recent American news, there has been much talk about the role and influence of fake-news and social media in the 2016 presidential election. Though there are many credible sources that say it wasn’t the determining factor in the election. There are numerous articles claiming the serious negative impact fake-news has whether it is determinative or not (NY Times, The Guardian). Perhaps, the post-modern world has really reached its apex and embraced the notion of ‘post-truth’ a word selected by the Oxford Dictionary as the International Word of the Year for 2016. Post-truth is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” But fake-news is not merely about philosophy, truth, or post-truth, it is additionally about our abandonment of morality in the economic sector. NPR’s Planet Money traces down one of the owners of the fake news websites in a recent podcast episode titled, “Finding the Fake-News King“. In the fascinating episode, Jestin, one of the owners of these fake news sites, reported to have made in the range of $10,000 to $30,000 a month. There is clear financial incentive here and in a world where profit trumps morality, it’s no surprise that fake-news is such a rampant phenomenon.

Money. So then is this fake-news phenomenon primarily a financial incentive issue? It’s hard to tell but one partial solution is to financially support credible news sources so that they can be empowered to report what is important rather than what sells. But it’s not merely an issue of money, there is indeed culpability in our post-truth mentality. We have taken truth too lightly in our generation. The 9th commandment of the decalogue seems like a peccadillo compared to its sixth and seventh counterpart (i.e. Don’t kill, Don’t commit adultery). Perhaps, we take it lightly because telling a lie doesn’t seem to harm anyone or if it does, not too much harm. Trump sure seems to believe it. We are all protégés of William James, whether consciously or not, and subscribers to the dominant American philosophy: pragmatism.

Pragmatism. Then, do we deny the enticing motivations of pragmatism and go back to modernist affirmations of right and wrong, that there is truth and there is untruth. That there is no such thing as post-truth. Perhaps. It wouldn’t hurt (haha). But to only think in the spectrum of right and wrong won’t help us properly navigate the moral ambiguities of white lies, or whether it is ok to lie to protect those in imminent danger, and it certainly will not help us see the foundational meaning of truth. What can help us see thus, is a biblical lens of shalom.

Shalom. Truth is not just right and a lie is not just wrong, as the world was created on truth as its foundation. Indulge me for a bit. A human is human. Air is air. Water is water. To mistaken heat and cold will lead to chaos. Honest predication, or truth, allows order, that is, shalom. It’s spacial. Then, there are promises. A word is my bond. Promises are truth connections of the past through the present into the future. We make promises in the present to guarantee a particular truth reality. Something of a temporal thing. And trust. Trust cannot exist with out the truth of promises. And without trust, there cannot be flourishing of relationships of any kind. Shalom, as Nicholas Wolterstorff defines it, “is the human being dwelling at peace in all his or her relationships: with God, with self, with fellows, with nature.” It is an affirmation of predication and predictability. Truth guarantees this flourishing. So a lie can be filtered through the lens of shalom. Though it’s not formulaic, it adds nuance. Should you lie to hide people in imminent danger? Yes! Will you be morally culpable for doing so? I’d like to say no.

Fake-news. So then, are we to blame the news for the result of the presidential election? No, but there is a profound shaking of foundations when we continue on with such false reporting for the sake of profit. It is more than getting things wrong, it’s increasing chaos and diminishing flourishing on a cosmic scale. It is no wonder Jesus included truth along with the way and life to predicate who He is.

Plan B

13 08 2016

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

“Dreams” by Langston Hughes

The elderly often catch my eye. In a restaurant, on the street, in the subway. My mind inevitably wanders to a particular question: “What are their dreams?” It has been a destination of my mental meanderings as of late because at an age past the quarter-life, dreams seem to be a commodity of the past.

But dreams are not meant to live in the past. For a dream to flourish it must live in the future, and only when it flourishes in the future does it have a chance to enter into the present. A dream in the past only exists six-feet under, or at the most, six centimeters under our height.

Can a buried dream be revived? In this life, some, only some. As Niggle had to wait until the afterlife for his leaf to bloom into a magnificent tree, most must wait until the newness of life. But different dreams can be had. New dreams can be created into our futures for us to chase for us to strive. But how?

The West seems to tell us to somehow fan the flame of our dormant individual passions and create these new dreams ex nihilo. It seemed easy with youth. Hormones helped. But such individual fiats are next to impossible. New dreams are kindled, especially later in life, with friends, in relationship. The onset of life’s drudgery is often blamed on the death of individual dreams, but perhaps dreams are not the difficult thing to be had, perhaps, it is hard to meet those who will dream with you. To meet friends, companions, who help dream your dreams, who make them bigger, who refine them for good.

Drumpf, the Mob, Truth, and Belonging

16 03 2016


David Brooks wrote in yesterdays opinion pages an interesting piece on the shift of American culture from one of guilt to shame. Quoting much from Andy Crouch’s Christianity today article, he explains that rather than drawing lines between right or wrong, morality is pictured through the realms of inclusion and exclusion. Brooks interprets Crouch:

Crouch starts with the distinction the anthropologist Ruth Benedict popularized, between a guilt culture and a shame culture. In a guilt culture you know you are good or bad by what your conscience feels. In a shame culture you know you are good or bad by what your community says about you, by whether it honors or excludes you. In a guilt culture people sometimes feel they do bad things; in a shame culture social exclusion makes people feel they are bad.

And with the decline (or death) of modernity and the rise of post-modernity, subjective relativism is still lingering in our midst. The lines are not between what is true and untrue, it is between what you think and what I (or we) think. And the difference between the You-I, inclusion-exclusion line creates new markings for morality, but with a caveat. The line is always susceptible to change. Because rather than an unshifting standard of morality, the rules of in and out are determined (and perhaps shifted) by those in power. Again Brooks on Crouch:

….there are nonetheless enforcers within the group who build their personal power and reputation by policing the group and condemning those who break the group code. Social media can be vicious to those who don’t fit in. Twitter can erupt in instant ridicule for anyone who stumbles.

This is not to say that a guilt culture is better than a shame culture (and Brooks distinguishes the shame culture of the current discussion from historic Asian shame cultures), nor is it a push to return to the old. But what is worthy of taking note is that many of us do not know how to navigate these new territorial lines of shame. Perhaps semi-related is The Atlantic article by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt on trigger warnings and how over-sensitivity, tolerance, a lack of standards, and whatever else has stunted not only our education system but the American ability to discuss, civilly argue, and learn. The art of listening has long left us and all we know how to say in place of it is, “I’m offended.”

These suggestions about the shift in culture is perhaps very illustrative in the current presidential campaign with Donald Trump and his rhetoric. The inclusion and exclusion lines are being drawn, the presidential debates have devolved to shouting matches with no

"Somehow I thought it would be different up here."

“Somehow I thought it would be different up here.”

inkling of civil discussion, and the moral lines seems to be drawn and shifted to the likings of Trump’s daily emotional forecast (i.e. the police with power). But once again, shame culture, the concepts of inclusion and exclusion are not culpable here for the chaos or confusion (and violence), it is our unfamiliarity and misuse of such ideas that have perhaps placed the American political process where it is today.

Is there a solution then? If I could have it my way, I would bring modernity back, but as a realist (or pessimist), it is obvious that’s not going to happen. Perhaps, one possible way forward in the right direction, is to start understanding what exclusion really is, and to understand what real inclusion is without denying exclusion (like post-modernism used to say). A good place to start is, I suggest, Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace. Though he presents much to mull (and act) upon, one helpful suggestions he speaks of is the “drama of embrace” divided into four stages. One, ‘open arms’ equivalent to vulnerability. Two, ‘waiting’ speaking of providing time for the other to embrace. Three, ‘closing of the arms’ which is self-explanatory. Last, ‘opening of arms again’ where he means that you have been enriched by the presence of the other. Very practical, but sounds a bit cheesy, but cheese or not, most of us are so unwilling to even begin step one. We are fearful of what others will see in our vulnerability, we are arrogant in our impatience, and perhaps, sadly, it is frighteningly inconceivable to imagine ourselves changed or molded by someone so different from us.

What then shall we do with such fear?

I know of only one place where that answer lies, and it is not of humanity.

Politics of the Lunch Line

9 10 2015

It is often in the simplest things that reflect the profoundest of realities. Well, in this case maybe not profound, but reality… yes. Feeding a hundred and fifty people can oddly reflect the reality of the American political bipartisanship and the related economic issues. So, on a particular day with a particular group of 150 people, dinner was provided. The only thing that was determined for the 150 people was the order in which they were allowed to approach the food. The amount of food that could be taken was not regulated, at least in the beginning, and the distribution commenced. Eventually, several regulations were instituted, “Either the meatball or the chicken, not both!”, “One bread per person!” Then once, the food seemed to be disappearing faster than the line itself, ‘welfare’ allocation was instituted. Some food dishes were ‘saved’ for the end of the line so that the least could have at least some of the goods of society, or just.. dinner. Everyone was fed but not equally at equal amounts, some would say this is the beauty of the free market society and some would say it is the injustice of poor regulation. Hungry stomachs say some weird things. The one in charge realized after the fiasco that there was another way to proceed. Perhaps, unfavorable to the ones ahead in society (or line), this communistic method, if used from the beginning, would have guaranteed a better (Is equal always better??) distribution of food. To have regulators distribute a set amount of food for each person would have guaranteed that everyone got enough, or at the least equal amount of goods.

hipster-lunch-instagram-cartoonThis simple ‘slice’ of life, whether one falls on the republican or democratic side of economic and social issues, is at the least descriptively instructive for us. But two things must be mentioned if we are to learn the fuller picture of this anecdote, that is, scarcity and zero sum. Often in economic discussion, there seems to be a sense that there are limitless supply of goods, there is not, in a physical world contained in time and space, limitation is a reality that we must reckon with, and limitation means scarcity. Second, I have been told that the free market is a zero sum game. Even while acknowledging that I don’t understand that statement one hundred percent, I have to say that it seems incorrect. The free market cannot be a zero sum game because sin is not a zero sum game, and the free market involves sinful desires of people. That’s what supply and demand always incorporates implicitly. Sin is not the same as limitation, though related, to equate those would be a primal error in any discussion, but to the lunch line example, what it does show is that regulation is a helpful necessity but at the same time not a solution. This is so because the problem is not in the quality of distribution but in the desires of people and the blindness of people to the needs of others. “Incurvatus in se” the fourth century Bishop of Hippo used to teach. Our problems lie in our incurable proclivity of turning inward on ourselves, oblivious, if not consciously ignoring, the needs of others. But then, where art thou, solution?

Goodness in Illegality

13 11 2014

America and the West, often times in very confused manner, discusses and argues about what things should be legalize, what activities should be banned, etc. The rights and wrongs of a peaceful society colors itself gray, and the relationship of law to higher morality is channeled through much fog. But in a place where rights, any rights, are hard to come by, things start to become naturally clear. A CNBC article titled “How Millennials are shaking North Korea’s Regime” by Heesun Wee reminds us that not all laws are right and not all illegal activity is wrong. It rings true of what once was made clear in this western land by Dr King, Jr, in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:

One may want to ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all”

The black market seems to have been growing and is becoming of potential agent of change from the outsiders perspective. This coupled with the growth of technology, smuggling of pop culture into the North seems to have created fertile soil for change. Even the passing of a generation have contributed to this ‘perfect storm’, where the younger generation no longer remembers any goodness of the NK regime and decreases their loyalty towards country and leadership. There is a hole growing in the hearts of the younger people in NK and individualism is filling it, perhaps even hope. One defector describes:

“The black market generation is someone like me, who experienced the black market when they were young. They never received any rations from the government. They have no memories of the good life,” Park said. “My generation, they’re not really worshiping the Kim regime sincerely, just pretending. That’s what we call the black market generation.”

Wee reminds us though that there still is another factor to keep in mind, which is the political and economic connectedness between the countries of East Asia. North Korea’s economic relationships that would seem legal if transplanted into another country is the very power that perpetuates the totalitarian regime, and it seems that in many ways China is quite an accomplice:

A U.N. panel found a “mature, complex and international corporate ecosystem” of foreign-based North Korean firms and individuals to evade scrutiny of assets, financial and trade dealings. North Korea is experienced in using foreign-based individuals and shell companies—engaged in legitimate business—to mask illicit activities associated with sourcing nuclear, ballistic missile and other weapons of mass destruction.

Even on a refugee issue, it is a well know that China’s repatriation of escaped NK refugees has come under scrutiny. It seems obvious that the human rights issue in NK is inescapably tied to China’s interests and actions. It is difficult to tell if a top-down approach will being about change in both China and NK, it seems rather more likely that, NK’s ‘Arab spring’ will come through a continued infiltration of illegal technology and culture.

Video from CNBC article: (

For North Korean millennials still inside the country, black markets remain a part of their everyday lives. And while there’s no Twitter, YouTube or Facebook to spark mass unrest, pared down technology like laptops, radios and USB sticks are making their way inside, and being shared and discussed. It’s this powerful concoction of outside information and market activities that is fueling incremental transformation. And the younger generation is only getting older and wiser to the ways of the outside world.

“What it adds up to is this really significant social change whereby the North Korean millennials, or as we also call them the North Korean market generation, have this quite different relationship with the North Korean regime than their parents,” said Park of Liberty in North Korea. “In the long term, this looks like it’s going to be a really important factor for change.”

All this is hopeful and good news as one wishing for the country to open, but for the church, one cannot just sit around idle. The once strong Juche ideology of NK is growing weaker as the generation is changing and as great as economics and materialism can be a mechanism towards political restructuring, the church must prepare itself to fill this hole. Such will not only require sharing the gospel, it will take tangible and sacrificial filling of need, if and when there is an outflow of people growing in desire for a ‘better world.’

Eight Years….

11 09 2009

It was my junior year fall semester at Duke. I had never heard of the World Trade Towers before that day and did not expect the gravity of what was to happen that Tuesday morning. As any weekday, I woke up from my central campus apartment and made my way to the unfamiliar Engineering building on Science Drive. Sitting in the computer lab, some of the students in the back started talking in a very panicked tone. “A plane crashed into the World Trade Tower!” We all scrambled to to figure out what had happened. Most of us did not realize the magnitude of the event. Maybe just another headline. Personally, maybe I was desensitized by the tragic events of the collapse of Soon-Poong Department Store and Sung-Soo Bridge. I just thought it was just another unfortunate accident. Then in the afternoon, the seriousness of the event gradually sank in. My cell lab professor who is usually jolly and funny, dismissed our class in a solemn tone. I spent the rest of the day glued to the TV familiarizing myself to the event, the towers, and the plethora of sentiments that were being felt around the world that day. Wanting to understand, and maybe to sensitize myself again.

It’s interesting to hear what different people were doing during the morning of Sept 11, 2001. Their reactions, their feelings, their stories. NYTimes exhibits a few stories in “Views of a Day” that remind us that so often we lose sight of the significance of the mundane. So often we subconsciously think ourselves invincible, or at least far from death, that the little repeated activities in our lives lose weightiness. The policemen that Nathan Schneider met that day must have realized this and saw something extraordinary in the ordinary. Beauty in the game play of teenagers. The glimpse of the end of life reminded them of the preciousness of life and the moments we so often forget to cherish. It is good to remember, even eight years after. It is good for the soul.

It’s Finals Period… Want some salt?

4 12 2008

I’ve been coming across various simple yet unique ways that the world may be helped to become “better.” The other day I was listening to NPR and a healthcare expert was explaining how the implementation of a certain systematic hand washing procedure would decrease the likelihood of infections by a dramatic percentage. The the worst hospital in the only state (Michigan, thanks THK) to have incorporated this procedure has a less likelihood of infections than the best hospital of the rest of the America. This may not help health coverage, but it certainly sounds like a cost efficient way to increase health quality.

I was also reading Nicholas Kristof’s NYTimes Op-Ed Column, “Raising the World’s IQ“, and he talks about another simple, unique and cost-effective way to better the world:

“Travelers to Africa and Asia all have their favorite forms of foreign aid to “make a difference.” One of mine is a miracle substance that is cheap and actually makes people smarter.

Unfortunately, it has one appalling side effect. No, it doesn’t make you sterile, but it is just about the least sexy substance in the world. Indeed, because it’s so numbingly boring, few people pay attention to it or invest in it. (Or dare write about it!)

It’s iodized salt.

Almost one-third of the world’s people don’t get enough iodine from food and water. The result in extreme cases is large goiters that swell their necks, or other obvious impairments such as dwarfism or cretinism. But far more common is mental slowness.”

It’s quite sad that such a great option is overlooked because it’s not glamorous enough. I wonder how many good options are overlooked because something is just not marketable… Isn’t efficiency glamorous enough? If not that, then the glamor of philanthropy? I guess either way glamor is key. There just is something about beauty we can’t get enough of.

Going off on a bit of a tanget, this iodized salt proposition makes me wonder how differences in cultural diet affects our IQ. I’m kind of glad I’m Korean. We got lots of sodium in our food, hopefully it’s iodized. (Kimchi, baby!) Hmmm… enough thought. Back to finals. Maybe I’ll have some salt for lunch…