Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A "thick description" of truth-telling

Leave it to David Drury and friends to get some of the best discussions in the Wesleyan Church going in years.  To no one's surprise, it's on Facebook and the presenting excuse is the approaching general conference.  One of the discussions going has to do with WIF (our money lending body) and, presumably because its a potentially sensitive post, the poster of the thread posted under a pseudonym.

Now of course no lying is involved because everyone knew that "Orange Scott" was not the person's real name (Orange Scott was one of the founders of the Wesleyan Methodist church).  But a number of people took umbridge that the person did not have the guts to post his/her own name, as well as that s/he broke the rules of Facebook by registering under a false name.

I'll leave it to the person's conscience as to their intent, whether benign or spiteful.  And, being who I am, I don't care much about the WIF question.  And I accept the possibility that someone relatively connected, perhaps even "on the inside" might have legitimate concerns they could hardly bring up under their own name.  I'm a philosopher, a Bible-head, and a hermeneutician.  I'm interested in the question of what it means to tell the truth or to have integrity with regard to registering an account on Facebook.

It is an excellent illustration of what I meant in a previous post about "thick descriptions" of things in cultures.  Here are two fundamental insights into meaning:
  • The meaning of language is in how it is used, not simply in defining each word.
  • The meaning of an action or an event is a function of its socio-cultural context.  If an action has a universal significance, it is because of commonality between every such context.
If I say, "There's an elephant in the room," you cannot know what I mean without knowing the context.  I could be a zoo-keeper.  I could be using an idiom.  Or it could be code for my sister to pour Cool-aid on your head.  If turn my hand and make a V in America, who knows what I'm doing (victory symbol?).  In England I am flipping you off.  

So it is with truth telling.  I remember being at a church where some of the leaders would get very upset that individuals from another culture would tell them they were going to be at church Sunday and then would never show up.  To me, this was a cultural conflict rather than a matter of them being liars or, worse, it being typical of their "lying culture."  I knew what they were doing with their words.

The use of the words, "Yes, I'll be there Sunday" had a social function rather than an informative one.  "Yes, I'll be there Sunday" meant "I like you and don't want to offend you... even though I don't know if I'll come Sunday or not."  I considered it the cultural ignorance of the church leaders to assume that the meaning of words is always propositional, that the meaning of the words must be straightforwardly and literally defined in order to be truthful (if you disagree with me, don't ever step anywhere near a mission field).  The meaning of words has to do with what we are "doing" with them rather than some propositional content... unless of course what we're doing with them is in fact propositional.

It reminds me of sermons where a pastor chastises a congregation for saying, "How are you?" without waiting for an answer.  You guessed it, ignorance of how that language functions in common parlance.  "How are you?" often does not mean "How are you?" in some propositional sense.  It is often closer to "Hi, I want to be on good social terms with you."

So Facebook normally does not care whether you're a 9 year old girl or not really Mahatma Gandhi.  The function of that language is to keep their legal nose clean if you turn out to be a bad person.  They don't really care unless someone takes them to court--or you actually do something bad or do something stupid.  That's what the language really means because that's how it's used, how it works.  It's a game.

It's why I just smiled when someone once chastised me for being willing to go 9 miles over the speed limit.  If the police don't care, then the true meaning of the 55mph on the sign is really 64mph.  In other countries, stop signs mean, "Be careful as you barrel through this intersection, and if you do hit someone, we may very well come after you and kill you."  It's not a lack of integrity if you don't stop.  You'll be rammed from behind if you do.

Again, I'm sure I could have done better, but these are the sorts of things I mean by a thick description.  What does Colossians 3:9 mean when it says not to lie to each other?  To answer it, we have to know the parameters of truth telling in the first century.  We can't get the answer from Webster's Dictionary.

1 comment:

Nathan Metz said...

Is it egocentricity that disables us from being open to this conversation? Your 'elephant in the room' example is, of course, an easy one to understand. However, some of these situations are much more subtle. For example, when in Uganda my wife was complimented by a local woman at church with, "You have gained much weight!" In America, that's bad news. In Uganda, where people are literally starving to death, gaining weight means surviving. I like that you mentioned the use of this 'thick description' in reference to scriptural interpretation. The study of cultural meanings in the bible is fascinating.