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.

Aesthetics of Truth…

19 04 2011

From Gary Larson’s “The Far Side”

Recently, a couple of my friends and I attended a Christian conference in the Windy City covering the topic of ‘How to preach Christ from the Old Testament.’ The conference was immensely beneficial both in ways of encouragement and education, but there was a question that lingered forward from the recesses of my mind. One that has surfaced occasionally without resolution over the last five years. This perennial yet sporadic query is one that concerns the art of preaching, more specifically the use of illustrations and metaphors. But even more pointedly, it concerns what theologians call typology (the closest literary equivalent I could think of is ‘foreshadowing’) and relates directly to the theme of last week’s conference. The one of the main mechanisms (of course this is incredibly simplified) for preaching Christ from the Old Testament is to reveal that it foreshadows something of the future, that it ‘points forward to something greater’. In a sense, it is using temporal metaphors to describe the latter object of interest. The listeners of preaching that contains such literary mechanism, are moved, inspired, and in some instances exclaim, “Cool~”. But my question is this: “So what if it’s cool?” At the risk of sounding anti-Christian, what is the difference of such temporal metaphors and foreshadowing to ones we find in fictional novels (or nonfiction for that matter)? Here is an interesting column by David Brooks in the NY Times titled “Poetry for Everyday Life” concerning the prevalent use of metaphors in our everyday life that actually pronounces our weakness in comprehending intangibles or novel ideas:

Metaphors help compensate for our natural weaknesses. Most of us are not very good at thinking about abstractions or spiritual states, so we rely on concrete or spatial metaphors to (imperfectly) do the job. A lifetime is pictured as a journey across a landscape. A person who is sad is down in the dumps, while a happy fellow is riding high.

Most of us are not good at understanding new things, so we grasp them imperfectly by relating them metaphorically to things that already exist.

Brooks is right to point out the prevalence and importance of metaphors in our thinking and learning. People need references to learn new concepts and ideas. In theology, theologians would say we use anthropomorphism to learn of the invisible God, and not the other way around. Such blending of patterns and recognition of relationships is where Brooks places the poetic nature of metaphors, that is, the “cool” aspect of metaphors, he grounds in their ability to unearth unseen, novel patterns. This gives no satisfactory answer for my question(s) of “So what if it’s cool? Do metaphors in preaching merely inspire because of it’s coolness?” With Brooks’ concept of poetry in metaphors, the inspiration from preaching would be no different than reading a very moving book. Thus, the aesthetic/poetic nature cannot be primarily grounded in the mechanism of metaphors (of course, the use of metaphors can be, secondarily, still pleasing) rather it is grounded in what it describes. To make a metaphor such as “You must have had a flat, I see the doughnut on your car” is informative but not moving. In preaching, the temporal metaphors and foreshadowing are “cool” not because of the point of these mechanisms but because of the object of their pointing/foreshadowing. It is truth and reality that moves and inspires. Truth, when it is correctly portrayed using metaphors, is intrinsically beautiful. This is often forgotten because many think of truth, that is, ultimate truth, as one-dimensional or simple, but it is the vastness and the depth of this truth that invokes the sense of novelty, the novel metaphorical patterns merely unearth them to us to realize.

Would it not only make sense that this Truth is so vast and inexhaustible that, as Brooks points out, we have such difficulty in understanding even with the help of metaphors?