Opinion: A Linguist's Defense Of 'Falsehood'

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In his essay "On Liars," philosopher Michel de Montaigne famously wrote that the truth has a single face, while its opposite has "a hundred thousand faces."

That disproportion is reflected in the English dictionary. We have only a handful of words to describe statements that correspond to reality, like "correct" and "accurate." In fact, we don't even have a single word that means "tell the truth," which is probably to our credit.

But we have a vast vocabulary to describe all the ways statements can depart from reality, and it's gotten a considerable workout over the last couple of years.

Every news cycle seems to bring a new claim from the White House or elsewhere that cries out for correction and sends editors and journalists to their thesauruses, as politics makes linguists of us all. Should they simply qualify the statement itself, and if so, should it be called false or questionable, spurious or bogus, misleading or baseless? Or should they directly challenge the speaker's sincerity, and use the charged word "lie"?

The establishment media have been pondering that question at length. A few of them, like The New York Times, allow themselves to use "lie" more-or-less sparingly. But a great many others have consigned the word to the verba non grata file.

They argue that "lie" implies an intent to deceive, and you can't objectively observe what someone believes — in fact, sometimes they don't even know themselves. And even when someone's deceptive intent is obvious, calling a statement a lie is invariably antagonistic. You can't use the word dispassionately; as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "lie" is a "violent expression of moral reprobation."

But that's exactly why a lot of people demand that journalists call out lies wherever they see them. The New York Times' Maggie Haberman provoked a torrent of indignant tweets earlier this year when she described two of the president's statements as "demonstrable falsehoods," rather than lies.

One journalist tweeted that "falsehood" should be removed from the dictionary, adding "Let's call a lie a lie." The linguist Dennis Baron says that "calling lies falsehoods is pulling your punch."

But not so fast. It's true that "falsehood" can sometimes be just a decorous synonym for "lie." But often it's just the word we want. It's an old-fashioned word with the fusty ring of the pulpit, and we rarely use it in everyday speech. But "falsehood" can have a moral weight of its own, especially when we're more concerned about the effects of what someone says than whether they were being insincere about it.

The birther story is a quintessential falsehood — a narrative feeding on malice and ignorance, which took on an independent life as it passed from one person to the next. In that sense of the word, a falsehood does its work whether the person spreading it believes it or not.

Modern communication technologies have created powerful resources for publicizing and circulating falsehoods. They permeate social media, where we call them by other names — they're "misinformation," "propaganda" or "fake news."

Those words don't apply to individual statements, but to concerted efforts to shape public opinion. They're relatively recent words — they only date from the rise of the mass media, and their meanings have been disputed ever since. Even so, the engineers at Facebook find themselves in the unenviable position of trying to reduce them to rules, so that they can hand them to their moderators to police what they rather wistfully describe as the "Facebook community."

Facebook says that they'll take down content that's doing harm or attacking individuals. But they won't block something just because it's false. Their argument recalls the one that journalists give for their reluctance to call some statement a "lie": How can you tell whether people believe what they're saying or not?

In a recent interview with Recode's Kara Swisher, Mark Zuckerberg explained why they wouldn't remove the pages of Holocaust deniers. "It's hard to impugn intent and to understand the intent," he said. "There are things that different people get wrong. I don't think that they're intentionally getting it wrong." He said that Facebook might demote the post in the newsfeed, but they won't just remove it.

A lot of people found those remarks distressing. Shortly after the interview, the Anne Frank Center announced that they had gathered 150,000 signatures on a petition calling on Facebook to remove Holocaust denial pages.

The fact is that saying the Holocaust didn't happen isn't simply getting your facts wrong, like confusing Benicio Del Toro with Antonio Banderas or saying that carrots help you see in the dark. Whoever utters it is spreading a malignant falsehood, whether they're devious people or merely deluded ones. As the tech entrepreneur and social activist Mitch Kapor said, "The intent of Holocaust deniers is not the sole standard of judgment. It's the impact that matters."

In the current climate, it's easy to get fixated on mendacity in high places. But bear in mind that the word "truth" has two antonyms. Sometimes we contrast truth with lies and sometimes truth with falsehoods. We need both words. Even transparent or trivial lies erode our trust in one another. And when lies are more consequential, they can be amplified into pervasive falsehoods, which distort the way that people see the world.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.


This is FRESH AIR. TV and film star Burt Reynolds died yesterday in Jupiter, Fla., from a heart attack. He was 82. Reynolds appeared in a hundred films. Many, he joked, were so bad they were shown in prisons and on airplanes because no one could leave. Reynolds began acting in the '50s, but his career really took off when he became a regular on the TV talk show circuit in the '70s, cracking jokes with Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin. Among his films are "Deliverance," "The Longest Yard," "Smokey And The Bandit" and "Cannonball Run." In 2005, he got his only Oscar nomination for his role in the film "Boogie Nights."

Reynolds had a volatile temper and an eventful life. He was in a serious car accident that ended his college football career and suffered a shattered jaw in the '80s when he was hit with a chair doing a stunt for a movie. That led to an addiction to painkillers. Reynolds also had a series of Hollywood marriages and romances with Judy Carne, Dinah Shore, Sally Field and Loni Anderson.

Terry spoke to Burt Reynolds in 1994 when he'd written a memoir called "My Life." She asked him what it was like to grow up the son of a sheriff in a small Florida town.


BURT REYNOLDS: Well, it's like being a preacher's son or a sheriff's son or whatever. I mean, you go one of two ways. You're either a little angel, or you're crazy. And I thought crazy was the best choice of the two. I was always in trouble. And I didn't want anybody to think that, you know, because I happened to be the son of that I could get away with things. And, boy, he let me know right away that I didn't.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Did he punish you a lot when you were crazy?

REYNOLDS: Yes. I mean, he double punished. I mean, I was arrested once for fighting with about four guys. And they put us all in jail. And he came in and he said, your father's here; you can go home; your father's here; you can go home. Came to me and said, your father didn't show up. And I stayed there for four nights.

GROSS: (Laughter).

REYNOLDS: And he threw every drunk he arrested on top of me. I was always doing something that wasn't - you know, first of all, you have to understand that I don't respect anyone as much as I respect him. I don't - I never met a man in my life that I love more. But he was the kind of a man when he came in a room, all the oxygen left except for, you know, whatever he breathed. And he was 6-foot-4. And he was a very imposing, strong-willed man. And I spent most of my life - we have a saying in the South. No man is a man until his father tells him he isn't. And mine never did, which is why I was a little crazy until I was - well, till I had my son. Then I had to be an adult.

GROSS: I want to ask you about one of your most acclaimed films. And I'm thinking of "Deliverance." You were...

REYNOLDS: You could almost say only acclaimed film. But I was only in I think maybe two really acclaimed films, "Deliverance" and "The Longest Yard" and maybe "Starting Over" because it was nominated for an Emmy award, the picture was. But "Deliverance" was an extraordinary film in the sense that it was these four actors - I don't think you could get four actors who would do what we did.

GROSS: Well, you especially - you were almost killed...


GROSS: ...In a waterfall scene. Why don't you describe the scene which apparently none of the stunt people even wanted to do?

REYNOLDS: No, they - well, they would be - they'd be - said, you know, you're too crazy. Go away. You know, and I was crazy. But we had a - we could stop the water. We had a dam that we had control over. And it was a place called Tallulah Gorge, which - Tallulah Bankhead actually was born there and was named after this gorge. And it was about 85 feet down. And they sent a dummy over. And Boorman looked at it - John Boorman, the director - and rightly so said, it looks like a dummy. And I said to Boorman, I can do that.

And so they put - they stopped the water, and I said, give me a spike, a mountain climbing spike. I went out in the middle of the river and drove the spike in, and I put a rope around it. And I said, now, when the water comes out, I'll - it'll come around me, see. And I'll put my hand up and wave, and that's when I'm going to let go so you can roll the cameras. And then I'll go down there. I'll hit that rock, and then I'll spin off to the left. And then I'll do a flip, and then I'll land down there. And they all went, right. You know, we've got four cameras. And I heard them letting the water go.

And I looked back, and coming at me was this tidal wave. And away I went. And I didn't go anywhere I told him I was going. I went wherever the water wanted me to go. But I - the first rock I hit, my tailbone cracked. Then I did turn a flip, which was what I said I would do, but I didn't do it on purpose. Then I landed in what they call a hydrofoil. Well, a hydrofoil - you can't swim out of it. You have to swim to the bottom, and then it kind of spits you out. And I had been told that. And I remembered it, thank God. And I went to the bottom.

What they don't tell you is that that spits you out like shooting a torpedo out of a submarine about 70 miles an hour. And I went over the falls a 30-some-year-old guy in the best shape of anybody and came up 150 yards down the river totally nude and about 78 years of age, could hardly walk and had hit every rock, you know, along the way going 70 miles an hour, it seemed. And they all thought I had drowned. I mean, they said, there's a nude old man limping this way. But we've got to concentrate on getting Burt out of this hole, you know?

GROSS: Well, what happened to all of your clothes? Were they shorn off by the rocks?

REYNOLDS: They just vanished. I mean, it was - that's how fast and how strong the water was. And the next day, I went to the rushes with everybody, very anxious to see my exciting stunt. And we looked at it. And I said to Boorman, how's it look? And he said, like a dummy going over the falls.

GROSS: Did it really look like that to you?

REYNOLDS: Not to me. It looked like a dummy but a different kind.

GROSS: (Laughter).

REYNOLDS: But it was an extraordinary stunt to me.

DAVIES: Burt Reynolds speaking with Terry Gross in 1994. Reynolds died yesterday. He was 82. Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg ponders the difference between lies and falsehoods. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.