"It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words." So said Syme in George Orwell's prognostic novel, 1984.
Syme was a lexicographer and the developer of "Newspeak," a language designed to diminish the range of thought so that the totalitarian regime nicknamed "Big Brother" could control the thinking of the masses. By omitting words such as "freedom," "excellent," and "bad," Big Brother reduced the language and limited people's capacity for lucidity. When you lose a word, you lose the concept and the experience it describes as well.
Earlier this month, sales of Orwell's novel skyrocketed 6,021 percent in just 24 hours after tech whiz Edward Snowden released documents revealing the mass surveillance tactics of the U.S. and British government. Snowden said national intelligence director James Clapper's sworn testimony before the Senate that triggered him to leak the information. Clapper had told the Senate Intelligence Committee, in response to Sen. Ron Wyden, that the government was not involved in direct surveillance of Americans.
Wyden: Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?
Clapper: No, sir.
Wyden: It does not?
Clapper: Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly.
In this sworn testimony, Clapper committed perjury because he willfully lied. In an interview with NBC's Andrea Mitchell, he said:
I thought, though in retrospect, I was asked [a] "when are you going to … stop beating your wife" kind of question, which is … not answerable necessarily by a simple yes or no. So I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful, manner by saying, "No."
Since the government doesn't actually read all the e-mails or listen in on all phone calls, Clapper thought he could massage his words enough to obscure the truth of the matter. It seems as though he's going to get away with perjury.
I'm no advocate of Ed Snowden (who certainly has some odd bedfellows), but it's hard to miss the irony that Snowden, the truth-teller, is America's most wanted, while the liar, Clapper, goes about his business without fear of prosecution. As countless parents teach their children the importance of honesty, the government hunts down the truth-teller and effectively rewards the liar.
While the recent purchasers of Orwell's 1984 likely did so because the NSA surveillance tactics seem eerily reminiscent of Big Brother's, I'm more concerned that the lies promulgated in Washington accomplish what Syme set out to do. Our tolerance of lies threatens to destroy clear thinking and moral conscience through the desecration of words.
The Bible emphasizes the importance of words. All of creation was called into being with the spoken word (Genesis 1). God is God, and he could have used any infinite number of ways in which to create the universe, but he chose to use the spoken word. The first task of Adam is a task of words in the naming of the animals (Genesis 2). Part of what makes us humans created in the image of God—the strongest break from the animal kingdom—is language, our ability to use spoken and written words to communicate thoughts.
When we lie or we tolerate those who do, we desecrate and minimize an important aspect of our humanity and our ability to reflect our Creator. In John 8:44, Jesus tells the Pharisees, "You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires … When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies." What he's saying is this: "You're never more like Satan than when you're lying—or when you look the other way when someone else lies."
It's tempting to fall into the trap of indifference, to believe that politicians have always lied and always will. It's easy to stop caring because there seems to be nothing you can do. But Christians aren't given that option. We are called to be engaged citizens, guardians of the truth and thus, of words. We can't just be concerned about whether or not we ourselves tell the truth, we must demand truth of others.
As Marilyn Chandler McEntyre points out in her book, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, part of telling the truth—of responsibly stewarding words—is refusing to tolerate lies. "Do we shrug and say there's nothing we can do?" McEntyre writes. "I don't think so. It seems to me that the call to be stewards of words requires of us some willingness to call liars to account—particularly when their lies threaten the welfare of the community."
In my own house, I've been teaching my daughter Ellie what it means to tell the truth. At four, she's just now learning that she can conceal her actions—like hitting her sister or swiping an extra piece of chocolate from the candy jar—by lying about it. I'm telling her that truth is important, however much it hurts.
Indifference is a decision with moral consequences. Like the ancient prophets we ought to be brokenhearted over lies and be faithful in voicing our dissent. I cannot set about teaching my daughters to be brave in truth and at the same time be complicit, either directly through my support or indirectly through my silence, in the lies that are promulgated and sanctioned in our government.