On Being Thought a Liar

It's an interesting thing how offensive it is to be called, or even thought, a liar.  Liars don't break anyone's bones, but to be a liar is a really, really bad thing.  Why?

But first, I have to comment on the bad reasoning of people who arrive at that conclusion about me (and sadly, they can be found at various websites that don't deserve further attention).

Here's the reasoning, and yes, it has to do with "that whole business" (see here too).
JK will not tell me X, or Y, or Z, about Tom Johnson (because, as I've said, those details would reveal his identity, and I think it would be wrong to do that).
Therefore, JK is telling lies about Tom Johnson.
Um, it's not valid.

I think people are entitled to simply not listen to what I have to say. But they're not entitled to call me a liar.  That actually would require knowing something about me (that I'm a mendacious sort of person) or having information that falsifies what I've said.  People who do know me, and think I'm lying, or encourage others to think I'm lying--well, I need to go back to my Dante post and carve out the proper place for you.

Alright, let's try to rise about the particulars.  Why exactly is it so offensive to be thought or called a liar?  Comments only on that question. I'll be moderating to filter out any others.


Benjamin S Nelson said...

To be a liar is to betray, to do violence to a person's projects by breaking their trust. Betrayals are the lowest form of devilry because they exploit the weaknesses of innocence in order to perform wrongs.

It's offensive to be thought a liar for the same reason that liars are offensive. To be thought a liar, when one has not broken trust, is to have violence done to your projects even while you have kept trust. However, to be wrongly thought a liar also involves a degree of irony: you are having your projects violated and your trustworthiness questioned, for the reason that you are thought to have violated other projects and broken trust.

Brandon said...

I think a great deal of it is that if you get marked as a liar, whatever you say can be simply dismissed. So being branded as such is actually a very severe penalty: it removes you from the community of people that even minimal respect requires anyone to listen to.

The problematic thing is that people are very sloppy about what counts as lying. Even if one makes a claim that is provably just made up, one still might not have lied -- one might, for instance, just have jumped to conclusions on the basis of some loose analogy or stereotype, for instance, and sincerely believed it. And so also with the critics here, in an even more obvious way: the difference of scope in 'deliberately not saying what is true' and 'deliberately saying what is not true' makes for a very large chasm.

Jean Kazez said...

Brandon, Great points, both helpful.

Athena Andreadis said...

There are lies of commission and lies of omission. The former are deemed much more deserving of moral censure and/or punishment. But the latter can be just as harmful.

Jean Kazez said...

Isn't a "lie of of omission" actually just a secret? Sure, sometimes keeping secrets is harmful. On the other hand, sometimes it's the right thing to do, like when a journalist is protecting a source.

Faust said...

As per my comments in the previous thread, I think you were mostly being accused of being incompetent, as opposed to lying.

To be accused of lying would be something like:

"you have not seen the evidence you claim to have seen"


"you are saying that the evidence indicates X when you KNOW that it does not in fact indicate X."

While some people may have insinuated the latter, I think the more common accusation was:

"You have seen the evidence, and interpreted it to say X, but you are incompetent, due to your excessive bias, and therefore, until we see the evidence for ourselves, we will have to assume that you are incompetent."

There were many suggestions you were putting out false information, but generally the falsity was not a result of your LYING, but due to your inability to interpret the evidence (and indeed, the broader situation) in the correct manner.

e.g. a scientist publishes a report on some data set. After peer review, the fellow scientists all say "this conclusion is not warranted by the evidence." The publishing scientist may have been completely honest in his asserting his conclusions, but nevertheless come to a false conclusion due to his incompetence.

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, Obviously, I need to turn off the computer. At various blogs (that deserve no further attention) I am in fact being characterized as a liar, either verbatim, or in so many words. And this is being permitted by people who should know better.

crystal said...

I was just looking at one of my old blog posts (Deceive, Inveigle, Obfuscate about "mental reservation" - a kind of lying that leaves out important relevant information. It was in reference to the Irish bishops who lied about pedophile priests.

One of those Harvard Justice videos I watched recently was on what Kant said about lying - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KqzW0eHzDSQ&feature=player_embedded

Lying is o bad, I think, because it deprives people of the ability to make informed decisions - they don't get all the info or the right info needed from the liar. It's worse if the person is in relationship because then they break built-up trust and it seems like a betrayal.

Faust said...

Well I don't think it's acceptable to call you incompetent EITHER, but if they are flat out calling you liars, then I would say (stuff that can't be said on PG blogs).

Faust said...

Also, I do like Benjamin Nelson's comment, insofar as the main topic is concerned.

Adam said...

Considering this question, I can't help but think back to 2004 when John Kerry was so careful to avoid saying that George W. Bush had lied. The Bush administration said a lot of things with obvious intent to deceive, but some of them were arguably not lies. That was apparently good enough for the American people in 2004.

More broadly, I think we have something of an obsession with labeling people. If you order a tofu dish when eating in a restaurant with a group of people, there's a good chance somebody will ask if you're a vegetarian. We tend to discount the possibility that an omnivore might simply think there are good reasons to not eat meat once in a while. We like people to be less nuanced and fit neatly into simple categories. Of course, one or two data points is not always sufficient to predict an individual's future behavior.

Liar is a label that has very negative connotations in our culture. It doesn't make sense (to me) that it should be worse to lie than to deliberately mislead. Why do we single out this particular word?

My guess is that it's because lying approximates something bad. Plenty of lies are harmless, and plenty of not-quite-lies are harmful, but there are many circumstances under which lying is a bad thing to do. Labeling somebody a liar helps us simplify things. Even when applied correctly, though, it can bring the associations of the bad lies to somebody who has told only the harmless kind. And it can fail to accurately predict future behavior.

Jean Kazez said...

Adam, Being either called or thought a liar is very unpleasant, but I agree there's something especially toxic about the word. Which is kind of mysterious. Even when someone has fulfilled all the conditions, there's some impropriety involved in using the word. You're only allowed to use it when someone is a total miscreant. Strange.