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Sunday, September 13, 2015

Whatever Drives the Nail

You really have to watch yourself when you get into a debate in the comments section of your favourite blog.

There’s a certain beauty in being able to engage a large number of people at once. But a line of thought being developed between hundreds of individuals twists and turns and takes on a life of its own. In order to respond to any specific facet of the argument, you have to be quick off the mark or you may wind up saying something redundant. That, or your comment may appear so far from the things it references that it gets lost entirely. 

Thus a fair bit of kneejerking is common among commenters, which on occasion leads to making an idiot of oneself, like I did last night when I briefly found myself arguing something I don’t believe at all.

Shut Up and Go to Bed

At that point, it’s time to shut up and go to bed rather than doubling down, which is what I did.

I think most Christians have read that “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame”. It’s a good thing to keep in mind, notwithstanding the all-too-common urge to get a word in.

This particular debate was worth having though, because it was about rhetoric and lies, and how Christians ought to communicate truth. If I recall, it started when the site’s resident Mormon troll complained that the title of Vox Day’s recent book SJWs Always Lie is itself a lie.

A Little Background

Let me set the stage a bit here: “SJW” is a pejorative acronym used to refer to the type of individual known as a Social Justice Warrior: essentially a crusader for political correctness. These are usually Progressives eager to thought-police others; the sorts of individuals who insist on being addressed with gender-neutral pronouns, who use words like “shaming”, “deadnaming” and “triggering”, and who delight in getting others fired for offences they are not even aware are offensive. Day’s book is a corporate survival manual for the modern workplace.

Day says the title of his book is not a lie. It’s rhetoric:
“It is not strictly true, in the dialectical sense, that SJWs never tell the truth. To be dialectically sound, one should say ‘SJWs frequently lie’ or better yet, ‘SJWs have often been observed to lie in situations when doing so will serve their immediate interests’. But as Aristotle tells us, the best rhetoric is rooted in truth, and the statement ‘SJWs always lie’ rings emotionally true because SJWs lie so often, and so reliably, that it resonates with every individual who has been witness to their habitual dishonesty. That is why ‘SJWs always lie’ is flawed dialectic, but accurate and effective rhetoric.”
Put another way, while dialectic debates which sort of hammer may be right for a job, rhetoric will use whatever drives the nail.

Defining “Rhetoric”

Rhetoric, for the uninitiated, is “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion”. That comes from Aristotle, who was probably the first to explain the concept. Wikipedia says rhetoric is:
“… an art that aims to improve the capability of writers or speakers to inform, persuade, or motivate particular audiences in specific situations”.
Rhetoric is a device used by virtually everyone in communicating. Rhetoricians exaggerate, dramatize, tell stories and use imagery. Their appeal is emotional rather than logical.

Some users of rhetoric are liars. Others use rhetoric to communicate truth. The device itself is neutral. It is not moral or immoral. It’s just a mode of speech. It’s how we use it that matters.

All clear?

Okay, Back to the Debate

So someone else involved in our online debate said precisely this to our Mormon friend: The book’s title is not a lie, it’s just rhetoric.

The Mormon replied that Christians should never lie, and that rhetoric is lying. He quoted this verse in Revelation to make it clear that lying is very, very bad:
“But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
Taken hyper-literally, “all liars” looks very bad indeed. But John is not speaking about every person who has ever told a lie in his or her life. This amplification from the same writer only a chapter later is helpful, I think:
“Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.”
I suggest that the second verse expands on and interprets the first. In other words, the apostle John is not saying that everyone who tells a lie will burn in hell for eternity. If he is, we’re all toast. But context, not to mention the teaching of the rest of the New Testament, does not support that sort of pedantic reading. Rather, John is saying that people who are at home with lying — people for whom lying is characteristic, people who enjoy deceiving, people who go on fabricating unrepentantly and will not give it up — people like that have no part in the New Jerusalem.

Seems to me people like that wouldn’t want to be there anyway.

But our Mormon friend is very pedantic indeed. For him, “all liars” means everyone who ever lies. And for him, lying includes using rhetoric.

So the debate raged on. Another Mormon got involved who was not so punctilious and the two went nose to nose for the rest of the night. I went to bed, but got up thinking about what tools are appropriate to the Christian in trying to persuade others.

It didn’t take long for people familiar with scripture to start pointing out that not all rhetoric is lying, because the Bible itself is full of rhetorical statements:

The Epimenides Paradox

There is Paul’s famous reiteration of The Epimenides Paradox to Titus (Epimenides was himself a Cretan) that “ ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.’ This testimony is true.”

Taken hyper-literally, the statement is impossible, which is why it’s called a paradox. Thomas Fowler explained it this way:
“Epimenides the Cretan says, ‘that all the Cretans are liars,’ but Epimenides is himself a Cretan; therefore he is himself a liar. But if he be a liar, what he says is untrue, and consequently the Cretans are veracious; but Epimenides is a Cretan, and therefore what he says is true; saying the Cretans are liars, Epimenides is himself a liar, and what he says is untrue. Thus we may go on alternately proving that Epimenides and the Cretans are truthful and untruthful.”
But while the hyper-literalists and legalists among us twist themselves in knots over this, those of us who recognize rhetoric when we see it read Paul’s statement to Titus something like this:
“The general tendency among people from Crete is toward immorality, lying and self-indulgence.”
That Paul’s “always” here does not literally mean “without exception, and perpetually” is obvious from the fact that he goes on to tell Titus how to help cure the Cretans of these bad habits. There were Christians in Crete in the process, like all of us, of becoming more Christlike. The very least we can say is that the “always” in Paul’s statement would not be applicable to these folks for long.

Hyper-literalists, if they are attempting consistency, would have to argue that every Cretan was “always” a liar, something that is clearly nonsense. But Paul’s statement here is nothing more than garden-variety rhetoric. It’s not a lie. It’s not even a paradox. We need not get worked up over it, whether or not we happen to be Cretans.

Going the Whole Way

Another commenter brought up Paul’s equally infamous remark to the Galatians about Judaizers (“I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!”), a topic I’ve already tackled here

If we are going to be exacting, Paul’s statement cannot be precisely true, can it? Did he really “wish” all legalistic Jews to emasculate themselves? Surely not. But again, problems with the interpretation of this passage resolve themselves if we recognize it as a rhetorical device.

Not a lie. Just rhetoric.

Rhetoric and the Lord Jesus

I submit to you that even the Lord Jesus himself regularly used rhetoric in his teaching:
“If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.”
A hyper-literalist may argue that it really IS better to enter eternal life with one eye than to spend eternity in hell, and I would not dispute this. But my question is really, did the Lord intend us to literally gouge out our own eyes or cut off our hands and feet? He also taught that the things we do and say are not caused by faulty eyes, hands, feet or even mouths, but by faulty hearts. In that case, the remedy he prescribes would not even solve the problem it is alleged to address. And gouging out a heart is rather self-defeating.

Again, the problem disappears if we recognize the statement as rhetorical. That doesn’t mean the Lord was lying, and it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care about sin just because we don’t advise hacking off limbs to defeat sin’s work in us. What it means is that we read his words something like this:
“Take whatever measures are necessary in your lives to deal with sin, even if others would consider them extreme. The priority is eternity, not the present life.”
Christians who swear off alcohol completely or stop going to movies or listening to popular music are doing the sort of thing the Lord is here recommending. They are getting extreme about ensuring that their consciences are clean and that they do not displease God, taking the measures required in their own lives to deal with whatever sins tend to master them. This is a good thing. Ideally they will not slip into legalism and prescribe exactly the same remedy for all other believers who do not struggle with the same things, and if we have read the rest of the New Testament, we will be careful not to stumble them with the freedoms we may ourselves enjoy.

Generally our fellow believers, even the hyper-literal and hyper-legalistic ones, do not hack off their limbs or gouge out their eyes. We would not wish them to, assuming we recognize rhetoric when we read it.

In Summary

Rhetoric is a language device. It is a persuasive tool. It is not a good thing or a bad thing. It is just a thing. You find it in the Bible. You use it every day. So did the apostles and the Lord.

Back to the hammer image for a minute: A hammer can be used to nail a building together, but it can also be used by a murderer. Because rhetoric is a tool, some rhetoricians DO lie.

But hopefully we are starting to realize that there is more to being a “liar” than simply failing to be exhaustively factual, and that even a statement that fails the test of painstaking accuracy may not necessarily be deceptive at all.

More thoughts on the subject of lying tomorrow ...

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