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moral-2501A. E. Housman knew what he was talking about when he praised athletes dying young before they “wore their honours out” and had to watch their bodies age and the mementos of their former glory collecting dust on the mantle piece or window sill. Recently another Major League Baseball player, Carlos Ruiz, the talented and affable catcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, was suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs. This summer outfielder Melkey Cabrera and pitcher Bartolo Colon, along with the renowned cyclist and seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, were punished for trying to cheat time. Skip Bayliss of ESPN went so far as to wonder aloud whether Derek Jeter, the majestic shortstop for the New York Yankees, had not yielded to the same temptation since Jeter enjoyed one of the finest seasons of his career at age 38, two years after showing palpable indications of decline.

Bayliss was careful not to accuse Jeter, but, given recent developments, it’s hard to ignore the questions that he posed and the doubts that he raised. Yet, the most important aspect of this morality play is not whether some aging athletes have discovered better living through chemistry. It is, rather, the impossibility any longer of discerning what is true and what is real.

Should lying ever become pervasive, warned the sixteenth-century French thinker Michel de Montaigne, it would by itself unravel the fabric of society. Lying involves the corruption of language, and the corruption of language brings the distortion of reality and the debasement of life. What would Montaigne think not only of athletes who falsify their prowess, but also of entertainers who falsify their talents, bureaucrats who falsify expense reports, businessmen, bankers, and financiers who falsify the record of their profits, academics and other professionals who falsify their resumes, clergymen and educators who perpetuate or conceal the sexual abuse of children, and politicians who would lie in their prayers if they thought God were eligible to vote?

George Orwell proved mistaken about the impulse of totalitarianism to become more tyrannical as time went on. In important respects, the opposite happened. Despite the flaws of Orwell’s political vision, his concern for the degeneration of truth has stood the test of time, and become increasingly relevant. More than the prospects of a dreary and vile totalitarian regime, Orwell feared the degradation of language and the loss, or more accurately perhaps, the sacrifice of truth. He understood that remaining centered in the self, as Winston Smith’s mother had done in 1984, was the only alternative to a hectic, unruly, deranged, and falsified life. If men and women continue to live on borrowed ideas, embracing and repeating them only because they have heard someone else do so, then they will not be deceiving others. They will deceive only themselves. Farewell to repose. Farewell to serenity. Farewell to truth. Farewell to all that is real. Under such circumstances, life will become, as it is already becoming for many, empty, untrustworthy, and erratic, dominated by fictions and falsehoods from which no one in the end will be spared. And that’s no lie.

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3 replies to this post
  1. The convention of lying quite literaly degrades language, because when everyone lies, grammar,sentence structure, poetic form, imaginative style – all of it becomes irrelevant. Beauty in language is only relevent when seeking to communicate what is true. When people become shallow through lies, their language habits begin to reflect their nihilism.

  2. A memorable analysis of the bastardization of language and the destructive role it played in the Third Reich is Victor Klemperer's The Language of the Third Reich. While living in Germany while it descended into a hell on earth he chronicled the changes in the use of language among the masses,in the media, and by the government.

  3. I had not hitherto known of this blog until a member of a small class I was running through Scholars Online sent me the link to this posting. I’m singularly impressed by the scope of the entries and the thoughtful coverage they give a number of topics close to my own heart. I shall continue to read it when I can.

    The course I’ve been teaching has been on Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies; the obvious convergence of that topic with this probably needs no elaboration. All in all, it’s a thoughtful book, holding out for both elegance of expression and a steely adherence to the truth, tempered by humility and love. It’s not a bad recipe. Specifically on this topic, Mcentyre contends that a disregard for the truth cheapens our discourse across the board. The tragic secondary consequence is that a tolerance for lying makes even truth-tellers suspect. What does it mean that the majority of our youth now expect to be lied to routinely? Perhaps it’s something like Gresham’s Law: bad discourse drives out good.

    One of the other things that has been forcing itself on my own consciousness lately, however, is the notion that a genuine regard for the truth is probably the only anchor point from which one can legitimately turn things around, and which can enable us to achieve any genuine rapprochement between the scattered and shattered elements of our own political and religious culture. I’m a fairly conservative Christian struggling with my place in a denomination generally more liberal than I am; McEntyre is avowedly liberal, and a champion of the Christian Left. I realize that that very notion makes some conservatives uncomfortable. Some of what she says makes me uncomfortable. And yet her regard for Christ is palpable, and her respect for the truth is real. I think she’s the kind of person I could have a conversation with. We might learn from one another. Where truth is honored above any other partisan values, I think there are very few intellectual chasms that cannot be bridged. Where it is not, I can’t help thinking that any alliance is suspect from the start anyway. Trust cannot thrive in ground salted with lies. Fortunately, however, we can hold ourselves accountable first to a higher standard of truth-telling, and pledge ourselves to purifying and redeeming the discourse in our own little corner of the world.

    Dorothy L. Sayers, in one of my wife’s favorite quotations (“A Sermon for Cacaphony-Tide” — a satirical piece somewhat akin to The Screwtape Letters), wrote: “Where there is dogma, there is always a possible basis for agreement; where there is explanation, there is always the peril of mutual understanding; where there is argument, there may be victory and the dreadful prospect of peace.”

    It’s worth hoping for, I think.

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