On lies, liars and language

March 08, 1997|By Harold Jackson

LANGUAGE REMAINS the single best form of communication for members of the human race, who have yet to figure out that telepathy thing we're all supposedly capable of but are too stupid to do.

Language, though, is far from perfect as a conveyor of thought. It cannot guarantee that its speaker is truthful. And words don't always mean what they seem. A suggestive glance, a shrug of the shoulders, can change the perception of what is said.

Even the written word cannot be consistently taken at face value. Just the other day I noticed a printed sign advertising a ''Huge Pet Supplies Sale.'' The three-adjective phrase begs readers to have a little fun, to imagine which ''huge pets'' might be in need of the supplies on sale.

A giraffe? An elephant? As I drove by the sign, I kept thinking of a seven-foot Saint Bernard dog.

Newspaper writers are concerned about every word they put on paper, or rather on the computer screen. Reporters want to make sure nothing is misunderstood. Opinion writers want to make sure only certain things are clear.

It's always amusing to hear from readers who had not considered that while one type of newspaper scribe tries hard to present ''just the facts,'' another selects the facts he will use to skillfully steer the public's mind.

But before you curse opinion writers as being no better than (gasp) politicians, remember; politicians don't choose facts, they ignore them. They seek to ride public opinion, not change it. They choose words to take advantage of moods, not alter them.

Americans don't mind. We're used to politicians who think the truth comes with a dimmer switch that can be turned up or down like an electric light. In fact, those who come across as too honest are frequently dismissed as naive. The slickest can become president.

Outrunning the truth

Because we can identify with liars, either as fellow practitioners or victims, voters have allowed some contests for public office to become exercises in avoiding the truth. They want to see who can shake the facts long enough to cross the finish line.

Of course, outrunning the truth for a couple of years, or four or more if you're the incumbent, can be expensive. Getting the money needed to pay for a long campaign can lead to more obfuscation as candidates seek to hide where the cash is really coming from.

Maybe the nation would be better off holding a different type of election. We could get all the candidates for a particular office to assemble at a predetermined place and time to tell the biggest lies they can think of.

The media will take care to report these lies factually, and the public will get to vote on who told the biggest whopper. Make it a telephone poll. They never lie.

Such an election would be in keeping with the grand traditions of the United States of America, which has always loved tall tales and those who tell them.

Say, maybe we'd get some new legends to tell our grandchildren. Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan and John Henry have a lot of age on them. And the yarns we hear about balancing a budget while cutting taxes just aren't very entertaining.

The only drawback is that we could end up with the same leaders we have now. But at least it would cost less to choose them.

Because words are such imperfect vehicles, this may be a good time to mention anther tool that opinion writers employ -- satire. That's right, not only do we choose what we will say, what we say may not be exactly what we mean. So, let me be very precise with my language before ending.

I don't really think a lying contest is the best way to choose our political leaders. It would be too easy for them to pay somebody else to come up with the lies.

Harold Jackson writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/08/97

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