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Monday, December 05, 2011


I have a few pet rants, tirades I try to avoid because they can get ... well ... tiring. (Get it? "Tirade" ... "Tiring"? Oh, never mind.) One of those that I'm often thinking about even if I'm not ranting about it is the English language. Oh, no, not merely words and their meanings, although that is part, but the effect of words on communication. You say "blue" and I think it means "red" and we're not communicating. Words are symbols for reality. We use them to transmit what we're thinking. If the symbols we are using are not for the same things, then our transmission gets scrambled.

I remember that whole brouhaha when the U.S. military failed to find extensive caches of WMDs. It was the reason that Congress had approved sending the troops into Iraq. We won't go into the fact that WMDs were actually found and mostly kept quiet by the press. There is no denying that we didn't find what we expected to find. And what was the public outcry? "Bush lied!" Now, I had a hard time with that. I understand the term "lie" to mean "a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth." There is a fundamental difference between a false statement and a lie. The difference is intent. If I say, "My house is beige" and my wife corrects me and says, "No, it's more of a buff color", I wouldn't be accused of lying. I'd be accused of being male. Okay, I'd be correctly accused of not knowing the difference between "beige" and "buff" and telling what I believed to be the truth without an attempt to deceive. That's not a lie. Nor is there any evidence, going back to the Iraq War example, that the president lied. All indications are that the information that the president and Congress had was wrong, not that they intended to deceive.

"Hypocrite" is another such word. Just as "liar" is intended to be much harsher than "mistaken", "hypocrite" is in no way a morally neutral term. And we all get that. Jesus's harshest language was reserved for the Pharisees, and it was especially aimed at their hypocrisy (Matt 6:2, 5, 16, 7:5, 15:7, 22:18, 23:13-31, etc.). Jesus seemed to have compassion for sinners, but had a short fuse for hypocrites. Even today, hypocrites can get shut down pretty quick. I know for me when an outspoken advocate for saving the planet from anthropogenic global warming turns out to be producing 10 times the average carbon footprint, I tend to ignore his input. It looks like hypocrisy. But, my topic here is the meaning of words, communication. So what does hypocrisy mean? Hypocrisy is not the problem of being guilty of the thing to which I am opposed. Instead, it is "a pretense of having a virtuous character, moral or religious beliefs or principles, etc., that one does not really possess." Do you catch the difference? Lying is not simply false information, but the intent to deceive. Hypocrisy is not merely lacking a virtuous character, but the pretense of having it when you lack it.

This is an extremely common failure to comprehend. Imagine the conversation. "Son, I want you to avoid taking any kind of drugs." "Did you take drugs when you were my age, Dad?" "Yes, I did." "Then how can you tell me not to, you hypocrite?" Nope. Sorry. That is the wrong use of the word. It is a popular use, but it is wrong. You cannot be a hypocrite when you do not pretend to have a virtue you don't have. Paul, for instance, continually called on believers to press on toward godliness. In one place he says that he was the chief among sinners (1 Tim 1:15) and in another he admits that he has not arrived at perfection (Phil 3:12). Does that make him a hypocrite for calling on us to press on to perfection? Not at all! He makes no pretense to virtue, so he is not a hypocrite.

Here, think of it this way. You're going to go rock climbing ... extreme rock climbing. Who do you get to help you? Well, you get someone who has done it. So he's giving you instructions and says, "Do this and don't do that" and you say, "Have you done those things?" If he admits to failing to follow his own instructions, do you assume he's a hypocrite? Or do you assume he learned from his mistakes and is passing that wisdom on to you?

So let's see if we can stop misusing terms like "lie" and "hypocrite". When someone is mistaken without intent to deceive, it is not a lie. And when someone says, "This is the way; walk ye in it" and doesn't claim to, you can't label him or her as a hypocrite until they claim to do it and don't. Let's see if we can save our accusations for those who are really guilty of something. If someone claims, for instance, that the highest call of Christians is to give all your belongings to the poor and they do not, you can't call them a hypocrite. There will likely be other things you can say, but "hypocrite" won't fit without their claim that they do it. Pretense of the possession of virtue. That is hypocrisy.


Dan Trabue said...

Just a question to which I don't know the answer, for sure (although I have my hunches):

Yes, indeed, that is the English definition for hypocrisy - with the intent to deceive. However, when many folk use it (myself included) we are using it in a non-standard way (perhaps incorrectly) to mean one who is gracelessly arrogant in their views - not necessarily deviously or deceitfully so.

But it isn't just modern folk, I don't think: Jesus uses it (or at least a word translated "hypocrite") towards the Pharisees who, by most accounts (to my understanding) were sincere, actually religious whose sin was not pretending to be religious - their views were sincere oft times - but for the lack of grace and the arrogance in presuming to tell others THEIR sins, and the way they did so.

My question is: Is that NOT the way Jesus uses the term? It's the way it sounds to me and the way I've always heard it described (from my conservative childhood on).

Do you know definitively?

Stan said...

I don't see anything in the standard English definition for "hypocrite" that requires "intent to deceive". That's in the standard English definition for "lie". "Hypocrite" is simply claiming for yourself a virtue you do not possess.

Jesus explained His use of the term. "You devour widows' houses and for a pretense you make long prayers." "You travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves." "You clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence." "You are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness." All of this speaks of an outward righteous appearance while possessing an inner "lawlessness". Or, to put it another way, the standard definition of the word, "hypocrite". Jesus didn't condemn them for keeping the Law. "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." That is, "The scribes and Pharisees have a lot of righteousness ... it's just not enough." In the Matt 23 passage He commends them for tithing on "mint and dill and cumin". They fall short because they miss "the weightier matters of the Law: justice and mercy and faithfulness." Their Law-keeping wasn't a problem. Their failure was in only keeping the Law and missing "the weightier matters". And their hypocrisy was in claiming to have arrived at godliness when inside they fell so very short. Standard, run-of-the-mill, English-usage hypocrisy.

(Interestingly, the origin of the Greek word is found in the Greek play. Actors played multiple parts by wearing various masks. That's the origin of the term. It still pretty well describes the function. Putting on masks to show oneself as a character he or she is not.)

Dan Trabue said...

Both your definition ("pretense of having a virtuous character") and the Merriam Webster definition I was looking at (": a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not; especially : the false assumption of an appearance of virtue or religion ") imply a devious-ness/deceitfulness - the PRETENSE of good character (ie, pretending to have good character when you don't have it), the "FEIGNING to be what one is not..." those are saying there is a deliberate ruse happening, are they not?

I don't think the pharisees were generally faking their beliefs, I think they tended to be quite sincere. It was the arrogant presumptions of putting one's self in God's place in a NEGATIVELY judgmental manner, wasn't it? That, and their behavior lacked the very grace and mercy that SHOULD be at the heart of following God...? They were OUTWARDLY beautiful, doing all the right things and behaving, in fact, as very EXTREMELY moral people, it's just that their hearts, their "insides" lacked the beauty of love and grace.

Right? But I don't think there is any implication of deliberate pretense in their behavior, do you? Just a total missing of the point - that love and grace ought to be at the groundfloor of their life?

Marshall Art said...

As a conservative Christian, I have never veiwed the Pharisees as sincere in their religious practices. This was influenced by Christ's labeling of them as hypocrites. They put on a show of holiness, while being less then holy in reality. Indeed, my perception was that they were more concerned with the appearance of holiness than with actually being so.

In the use of the word "liar", I have leveled it at some blog opponents, but after pointing out that their supposedly sincerely held views were lies. Thus, to continue to trumpet positions that weren't true, they become liars regardless of what they think they believe. I use it as a warning more often than not as in, "if you continue to say that which isn't true, then you are lying". A thin distinction perhaps, but a distinction nonetheless.

Stan said...

I answered the question, showed from Jesus's comments why I answered it that way, and come to the conclusion that Jesus used the term in the same way that we do. If, indeed, the Greek hupokrites means "arrogant presumption of putting one's self in God's place in a negatively judgmental manner", then the English translation is not even remotely reliable and we ought to discard any reference to "hypocrite" as an unhelpful, incorrect translation of the idea intended.

In other words, I read the text, told you what I saw and why, and you disagreed. This isn't new. It's standard. Do we need to continue to debate it?

Stan said...

Marshall, based on the definition of "lie" as an actual intent to deceive, I would have to conclude that your use of the term in reference to people who claim to believe something that is not true would be an inaccurate use of the term. (On the other hand, you understand the Pharisees as standard "hypocrites" like I do.)

Marshall Art said...

The distinction isn't lost on me, regarding "liar". But I use the term to describe what I see as the result of continuing to perpetrate lies, even if they are believed by the perpetrator. It's to get them to think more deeply on the issue in question, so as to reconsider or to provoke a better defense for me to consider. A lie is still a lie even if the one spreading it believes it to be true. That doesn't technically make him a liar, but what is said is still untrue. That's my point.

Stan said...

Marshall Art: "A lie is still a lie even if the one spreading it believes it to be true."

Yes, that's the popular position. My point is that that position is wrong. It is a new definition of the term, "lie". And since my concern at the outset was retaining definitions, I pointed to that word as one that has moved. You illustrate my point. Being wrong about something -- stating something as true which you believe to be true but which is not, in fact, true -- is not the definition of a lie. I won't use the term that way. It serves no purpose to intentionally incite people with false accusations. (In fact, to do so is ... a lie if you know the definition of the term.)

Glenn E. Chatfield said...


There does not need to be an intent to deceive with a hypocrite; that is NOWHERE implied by my reading of any dictionary, but then you have a problem understanding scripture so it certainly not a surprise that you don’t understand a dictionary.

A person who chastises another for gambling at the casino, all the while playing the lottery, has not intention of deceiving, has no devious intent behind that charge. He just doesn’t recognize that he is doing the exact same thing he is attacking in the other person - gambling.

Your reinterpretation of hypocrisy means is just so you can continue using the word “hypocrite” to bash those who disagree with your interpretations of the Bible.

Marshall Art said...

I"ll go this far: My statement...

"A lie is still a lie even if the one spreading it believes it to be true." indeed true, even if the one spreading the lie is not a liar because he indeed believes the lie to be fact.

Stan said...

Marshall Art: "My statement ... is indeed true ..."

Since "lie" is not merely a false statement, but a false statement with intent and specifically with intent to deceive", if one spreading the false statement believes the false statement to be true, he/she cannot have an intent to deceive. He/she is wrong, in error, totally off-base, completely false, perhaps, but not a liar. Maintaining that holding to a false statement although he/she believes it to be true makes him/her a liar is precisely my point. The English language is eroding, communication is failing, and this kind of thinking ("I don't care what the definition is; I'll use the word as I see fit") is the rule rather than the exception. I am, in fact, fascinated at the prospect of another Tower of Babel, where English is becoming a worldwide language that is, simultaneously, losing its meaning and, thereby, becoming an unusable form of communication.

Just for future reference, if you (anyone) use words that do not mean in your usage what they mean in common usage (or even the usage of the listener), don't be surprised if you (or anyone who does it) is not understood. As a not-too-far-out example, when "Do you love you mother?" comes to mean "Are you having sex with your mother?", expect not only a misunderstanding but perhaps a fight. When "liar" means "mistaken and not know it", expect not only a misunderstanding, but likely a fight. And it would be a fight because you (whoever uses the term this way) had a failure in communication.

Marshall Art said...

I'll take that chance. When a falsehood is supported and perpetuated in the face of far better counter arguments, when the arguments in support have numerous holes which have never been filled, when the arguments that counter the falsehood are so solid that they are eventually met with "let's agree to disagree", or "I don't buy it", etc, and no equally compelling, logical or rational responses, eventually the purveyor of those falsehoods must admit problems with his position and at least set aside his opinions or realize he's supporting a lie. Thus, in further clarification of my position on the subject of "liars", I do not level the charge initially, but only after years of exchanges with the same people that fail to yield any acknowledgement of truthful and easily supportable arguments against their falsehoods.

David said...

Marshall, in your own definition you mention lie and falsehood. That is the key difference Stan is talking about. A lie is necessarily a falsehood, but a falsehood is not necessarily a lie. Accusing someone of a falsehood isn't nearly as condemning as calling them a liar. Even if they refuse to believe the arguments you set forth and have no way of refuting your arguments, if they truly believe what they say is true, they are merely false, not lieing. If they ultimately refuse to listen to reason, move on. Don't be like Dan T and continue to beat your head against a brick wall. Wash your hands of their falsehood and move on.