When is a Lie Not a Lie?

“Lie” might be the most popular word in the English language right now. We see it thrown about like crazy in news reports, opinion and op-ed pieces, blog posts, social media posts, comments, and just about anywhere individuals and organizations express their opinions.

I’m coming to the conclusion that we’re using the word wrong. That, in the words of the immortal Ingio Montoya, “I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Or maybe it does, but we’re still using it incorrectly.

Here’s the crux of the problem: if a person believes something to be true, and states that belief as truth, are they lying?

They are not. They are wrong. But they are not lying. To quote Dictionary.com, to lie is:

“to speak falsely or utter untruth knowingly, as with intent to deceive.”

The key words there are “knowingly” and “intent”. Someone who speaks what they believe to be true is not knowingly speaking a falsehood, and has no intent to deceive.

They’re just wrong.

Now, I’m not saying that people – OK, OK, I’ll just cut to chase, “politicians” – don’t lie. There’s do doubt that they intentionally and knowingly often speak falsehoods for a variety of reasons. Typically it’s about furthering their own agenda, or their own position of power. No doubt. People lie, and politicians are the stereotypical example.

But the orange elephant in the room is, quite possibly, something else entirely.

Enter the term “delusion”. Once again from Dictionary.com:

“a false belief or opinion”

“a fixed false belief that is resistant to reason or confrontation with actual fact”

Is an individual lying when they express their delusion?

Again, no. They are not lying – there is no intent to deceive or mislead – they believe their statements to be true. They are wrong. They are deluded. But they are not lying.

We’re currently faced with an environment where statements being made are so fantastical, so incredibly, objectively, provably wrong that we cannot conceive of someone actually believing them to be true. Particularly individuals persisting in their beliefs when confronted with objective reality – i.e. the real truth.

And yet, perhaps more to the point, we also cannot conceive of people actually believing what they hear when these statements are made. The person making them has to be deluded if he thinks that the statements are true, particularly if he believes that others will believe him.

The real risk here is not that we may or may not be fighting for the truth. In a rational world objective truth eventually comes to light.

The real risk here is that we’re fighting someone’s irrational delusions. The risk is that by calling them “lies” our arguments can and will be rightfully ignored because he is not lying. He is simply wrong. He is mistaken.

Even though is his clearly wrong, he “knows” he is right, and honestly believes he is acting in accordance with his beliefs.

He is deluded.

And you don’t convince a deluded person by calling them a liar.