Does Language Make Liars of Us All?

by Joseph Shieber

I want to begin with a parable.

There once was an itinerant salesman by the name of Osip, who made his living selling rags and trinkets in the little villages that lay in the triangle between Smolensk, Minsk and Kiev. He spent his weeks and months traveling between the major cities, finding what he could in one location and selling it on in the next.

One of Osip’s rivals was a man named Mendel, who also plied the same routes selling rags. It was a constant struggle between the two of them to see who could find the better wares, or sell them for a better price.

Now, once, as Osip was traveling on the route from Minsk to Orsha, he happened upon a group of brigands outside of the town of Barysaw. Luckily for Osip, he had spent all of his money in Barysaw, buying new wares, and the brigands were interested in coin, not merchandise, so they let him pass.

When Osip reached Orsha, he encountered Mendel, preparing to make the reverse journey from Orsha to Minsk, and laden with coin to purchase wares along the way, before selling them on.

Now, there are two main routes from Orsha to Minsk. The more direct of the two was the one that Osip had just traveled, passing by the brigands outside of the town of Barysaw. The other is a good bit longer, as one must first head south to Mogilev, before then heading west to Minsk.

As Osip encountered Mendel, then, he faced a quandry. Should he do the right thing, and warn Mendel about the brigands that he would encounter if he took the more direct route? Despite his rivalry with Mendel, Osip was determined to do the right thing.

But now Osip faced a second challenge, of a more practical nature. If he simply warned Mendel, and told him about the brigands, there was little doubt that Mendel would assume that Osip was lying to try to trick him into taking the longer route that went through Mogilev. Osip, however, had an idea.

“Nu, Osip,” said Mendel. “Just arriving from Barysaw? Were the pickings good?”

“No, Mendel,” Osip replied. “I traveled through Mogilev, and as you see I bought up the best stock. I was lucky, too. Just as I departed I saw a gang of brigands setting up to ambush travelers on the road from Mogilev to Orsha. On your travels you should be sure to choose a different route.”

“Ah, Osip,” Mendel cried. “Do you take me for a fool? The route through Barysaw is the faster route from Minsk to Orsha. You must have seen the brigands along that route, or else you heard that the stock in Mogilev is indeed good, and want to get there first yourself by sending me elsewhere. Either way, your plan won’t work. I will take the route to Mogilev.”

And with that, Mendel proceeded to take the route toward Mogilev, on his way to Minsk. As Mendel passed him, Osip smiled to himself, happy that his deceit had saved his rival from a terrible fate.

I wrote the parable myself, but I don’t have any illusions about its originality. In fact, I have the strong feeling that I read a story almost exactly like it, but I was unable to recall where.

The basic message, of course, is that it is possible for someone intentionally to utter a falsehood with the further intention of getting his hearer to believe something true. And though that message has a faint air of paradox, it really shouldn’t be all that surprising.

Every parent, for example, takes advantage of a related trick when they use reverse psychology to get a willful child to do something that the child would otherwise resist. The parable, of course, is a case of intentionally denying some claim in order to get someone to believe that claim, whereas the reverse psychology case is a case of intentionally commanding someone to refrain from performing some action in order to get them to perform the action.

I’ll return to the lessons of the parable in a bit, but before I do, I wanted to consider the question with which I titled this essay: does language make liars of us all?

There’s a long tradition in philosophy that distrusts language for being essentially, by its nature, misleading. Here’s an example of what I mean, taken from Sartre’s Nausea, published 80 years ago last year. In that novel, the protagonist Roquentin, a stand-in for Sartre, has an epiphany at the site of a chestnut tree in a park in the fictional town of “Bouville”, a stand-in for Le Havre, where Sartre was living and teaching at the time.

The insistent “this-ness” of the chestnut tree, its resistence to description, forces upon Roquentin the realization that existence, being, is essential, and that it defies thought and language:

All at once the veil is torn away, I have understood, I have seen. … The roots of the chestnut tree sank into the ground just beneath my bench. I couldn’t remember it was a root anymore. Words had vanished and with them the meaning of things, the ways things are to be used, the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, stooping over, head bowed, alone in front of this black, knotty lump, entirely raw, frightening me.

In this passage, Sartre, speaking through Roquentin, rejects language as “feeble”, only capable of grasping things “on their surface”. In other words, language misleads, deceives, hides the true natures of things. Only if you were able to escape language, only if “words … vanished and with them the meaning of things” could the “veil” be “torn away”.

There was a time – say, when I was an undergraduate – that the sort of tragic conception of language expressed by Sartre appealed to me. Now, however, I no longer see the appeal.

Let’s stick with Sartre’s visual metaphor; the veil is a covering that hides some object or person from sight. Rather than thinking of language as a veil, it makes more sense to me to see language as light itself.

In the absence of language, as in the absence of light, the object is hidden. However, different intensities of light are useful for different circumstances. Dim lighting can of course conceal facts that more sunlight would reveal. But light can also be too bright, obscuring everything in its glare and making it impossible to distinguish the details that would be clear in subtler light. According to this way of thinking of language, it can reveal, as well as obscure. What matters is that the qualities of the light fit the situation being illuminated.

If the metaphor of language-as-light is more apposite than that of language-as-veil, then we don’t need to think that language necessarily misleads. Nevertheless, I do think that there is something about linguistic communication that lends itself to misdirection.

This is what I have in mind. The thought has actually been nagging me since my critique of Markovits on meritocracy. In that critique, I faulted Markovits for romanticizing the meritocrats, for downplaying the ways in which they are complicit in the system under which – according to Markovits – they too suffer, and for ignoring the fact that, unlike the victims of meritocracy, the meritocrats have the luxury – and material security – simply to refuse to participate in the system any longer.

Even as I criticized Markovits, however, I wondered if the aspects for which I faulted him weren’t in fact strategic decisions on his part. Presumably, Markovits’s intended audience are the “winners” of the meritocracy, the meritocrats themselves. And how better to win their support in attempting to dismantle the worst effects of the meritocracy than to appeal to the meritocrats as the true, tragic victims of meritocracy?!

Given that, at the same time I was criticizing him I wondered if Markovits wasn’t simply already a step ahead of me. I began thinking that perhaps he’d seen the complicity of the meritocrats and their blindness in recognizing the power they have to withdraw from the system that victimizes them, but he made a strategic decision not to call attention to those facts, in order better to appeal to the meritocrats’ own self-image as tragic heroes, sacrificing their — and their children’s — leisure time and mental health at the altar of resume-stuffing achievements.

Seen in this light, those aspects of Markovits’s analysis that I criticized were merely rhetorical choices: Markovits sacrificed truth-telling for the sake of persuasion. Had he been more – and more brutally – forthright, he would have risked losing the readership that he sought, and would have been less likely to bring about the sorts of changes that might ameliorate the worst features of the meritocracy that he highlights.

Similar choices potentially face others who engage with the public sphere. So, for example, a number of articles highlighted recent research that suggests that progressives would do a better job of persuading white voters to oppose Trump if those progressives refrained from referring to Trump as racist. Pointedly, the headline of Dana Milbank’s Washington Post essay discussing the research was “Trump is a Racist. Democrats Should Stop Calling Him One.”

Other research suggests that conservative evangelical Christians face an analogous dilemma. They can either actively embrace what they understand as the truth that evangelical Christianity requires a rejection of a host of socially liberal ideas (openness to the LGBTQ community, tolerance of abortion rights, etc.) or they can expand the base of the evangelical community, but they can’t do both. As evangelicals become more vocal in rejecting progressive ideas, they drive progressives ever farther away from religiosity and toward secularism.

You would think that little could be more important to evangelicals than to evangelize. It’s in their name! But the research suggests that the evangelism is at odds with the attempt to assert their interpretation of Christian values in the public sphere. The evangelicals would be more persuasive about their explicitly religious message, in other words, if they avoided being as vocal and politically active about those of their socially conservative beliefs that don’t resonate with progressives.

And there are potentially similar problems even in academia. For example, there has been some research to suggest that a belief in free will is correlated with a range of morally praiseworthy behaviors (but compare, for example, this). If this is the case, then researchers might choose not to publicize studies that might disabuse the public of their belief in free will, in the hopes that maintaining a (false) belief in free will would increase (or, at the very least, not decrease) the prevalence of those morally praiseworthy behaviors. (A completely different and unrelated, currently more controversial example in philosophy, is arguably this.)

Now, you could object that these phenomena don’t involve cases of false or misleading utterances, but rather that they all involve instances in which someone chooses to remain silent about some truths, so as better to influence their audience. But here’s where the parable comes in.

If it’s okay to remain silent about information that would be of concern to your audience, in order better to influence them to behave in a way that you think would be beneficial, then why would it not also be okay intentionally to utter falsehoods, if you thought that by doing so you could influence your audience to behave in a more beneficial way?

The parable of Osip and Mendel is one example of this. It’s not alone, however.

Consider the “myth of the metals”, in Plato’s Republic. According to the character Socrates in that dialogue, the optimal arrangement of society is one in which each member of the society serves in the caste for which their character traits best suit them. Courageous people, for example, will be warriors, while the wisest people will be part of the ruling class.

Socrates recognizes, however, that people are perverse. Rather than pursuing the tasks that best suit them, people pursue their desires and are easily self-deceived about their abilities. A courageous, not terribly wise person might suppose himself to be a great thinker, and therefore mistakenly think it best for him to be part of the ruling class.

In order to prevent this, Socrates suggests that the ideal society promulgate the myth that each member of the society is born out of the earth, and that the particular part of the earth from which they’re born is their mother. Being born from the earth, each person will be marked by a certain metal. The wisest are marked with gold, the courageous are silver, the merchants and workers are bronze or iron. Socrates suggests that an oracle should be made to tell the people that doom will come to the society if people from the wrong metal should perform a societal role to which their metal doesn’t suit them.

This is the origin of the “noble lie”, an intentional falsehood told because it “would have a good effect, making [the people] more inclined to care for the state and one another”.

Now, in the case of the parable with which I began, it seems to me that Osip behaves morally, despite the fact that he intentionally utters a falsehood to Mendel. In contrast with the case of Osip and Mendel, however, I’m disinclined to agree with Socrates that the myth of the metals, though undoubtedly a lie, is in fact noble.

One way in which the two cases are different is that, in the Osip case, Osip utters a falsehood with the intent of getting Mendel to believe something true. And for me, this does seem to be significant.

For this reason, my own judgments about the other cases seem to turn on the question of whether they involve manipulating someone into acquiring a false belief.

If this is the measure of whether the policies of intentional deception are permissible, it seems to me that Osip’s actions are acceptable, if not downright praiseworthy. Similarly, it is acceptable for progressives to refrain from calling Trump a racist. Progressives can, of course, describe and strongly criticize the destructiveness of Trump’s racist policies. If the research is correct, however, they will ultimately be more effective in combating those policies if they refrain from calling Trump a “racist” for pursuing them.

I’m less confident about the free will case. Suppose that it’s false that humans have free will. Suppose also that the belief in free will is currently widespread. Then, if researchers who have strong evidence against free will refrain from publicizing that evidence, they won’t be manipulating the public into acquiring a new, false belief. The public already has the false belief that free will exists! Nevertheless, they will be complicit in allowing the public to persist in holding a belief that the researchers know to be false.

What about the question with which I began? Is there something about language in particular that lends itself to deceptiveness?

This seems very implausible. What all of these cases involve isn’t a function of language, but rather a function of sociality, and the ways in which our relations with others force us to use language strategically. (To put it in more technical terms, the deceptiveness of language is a function not of semantics, but of pragmatics.)

Language, then, isn’t deception. To paraphrase a different work of Sartre’sdeception is other people.