When a blogger posted that he did not believe that President Geroge W. Bush lied about Iraq, I chuckled at the three-way “tell.” [A “tell” is a behavior or other indication used by gamblers to detect states of mind.] First, the blogger invoked his personal (dis)belief, erecting one wall against disconfirmation. Second, the blogger used a form of “to lie,” a polar verb short of which most deceptions may be said to stop. Third, what the blogger did not say was that he believed that President Bush told the truth about Iraq. Let’s look at each tell in turn.
When I tell anyone that I believe something, I implicitly admit that I cannot demonstrate the truth of that something. The blogger did not claim that he knew that President Bush had told no lie about Iraq. Rather, he stated a tenet of personal faith that, whatever President Bush did, Bush’s assurances and assertions regarding Iraq did not constitute a lie. I chuckled because tobacco executives wore out statements of personal belief — “I do not believe that nicotine is addictive.” “I do not believe that cigarettes contain carcinogens.” — long before faith-based politicos began to overuse belief-based verbs. “I do not believe …” is a telling phrase.
Equally telling is the choice of “lie.” Part of Representative Joe Wilson’s problem when he said to or at President Obama “You lie!” was that lying lies at an extreme on a gradient of dishonesty. If President Bush did not lie about Iraq, he might nonetheless have misled, misdirected, misrepresented, or misspoken. If I “endorse” a student’s honesty by claiming that the student “will not flat-out lie,” I thereby leave unremarked the possibility that said student will engage in every deceit short of a flat-out, bald-faced, deliberate untruth.
Third, what the blogger elected not to say is as telling as what he did say. I cannot blame the blogger for eschewing a statement that President Bush told “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” about Iraq. I doubt that even President Bush would claim that. Still, to deny the worst case is far short of averring the best case.
So if someone informs you that she or he does not believe that President Bush or President Obama has lied or is lying, follow up to find out if your informant can use any other phrasing without his own pants bursting into flames.