'It's not a lie if you believe it'

So says Seinfeld’s George Costanza. But whether or not he really believed that is hard to say.

It’s often hard to say whether or not the speaker really believes what they’re saying when they’re saying something that isn’t true. Yesterday we discussed a currently circulating political falsehood, trying to discern whether it was repeated as an outright lie or just an irresponsible rumor.

The realm of untrue statements is large and incredibly diverse. It includes honest mistakes, honest misstatements and misinformation that may be shared innocently or spread intentionally in service of some larger purpose, commendable or contemptible. It includes sarcastic and ironic statements, exaggerations and understatements, jokes, ghost stories, tall tales and urban legends. It includes propaganda, gossip, rumor, spin, marketing and salesmanship. It includes white lies, euphemisms and the little lies and obfuscations told to protect the vulnerable or to preserve the innocence of children.

And, of course, it includes all manner of deliberate and venomous lies — slurs, slanders, libels, scams, cons, hoodwinkery, bamboozlement and every form of bearing false witness against a neighbor.

Some of those sub-categories overlap and interbreed, creating strange hybrid forms of untrue statements that seem simultaneously innocent and malicious. Some involve self-deception as much as, or even more than, the deception of others.

The more these distinct forms of untrue statements overlap and intermix, the more interesting I find them to be. The classic snake-oil salesman, for example, isn’t terribly interesting. He lies about his useless product in an effort to deceive others into giving him their money. But what of the snake-oil salesman who began as a customer and who believes — or partly believes, or needs to believe — that the homeopathic tincture of snake-oil he’s peddling is or at least might be effective? That’s a more intriguing case, more deserving of the attention of a playwright or a psychologist or a theologian.

I want to turn next to a particular sub-species of untrue statement that interests me because it’s one of those murky areas where deception and self-deception seem inextricably woven together. It’s the sort of falsehood that others may identify as a form of lying before the liar herself even realizes that this is what she’s doing. And it’s a form of falsehood that’s of particular interest to me as a Christian because it is frequently heard from pulpits on Sunday mornings.

I’m referring to the gooiest, most syrupy and sentimental form of lying there is — to what the folks at Snopes.com categorize as “glurge.” Snopes defines glurge — a semi-onomatopoeic term coined by Patricia Chapin on the site’s message boards — as:

… the body of inspirational tales which conceal much darker meanings than the uplifting moral lessons they purport to offer, and which undermine their messages by fabricating and distorting historical fact in the guise of offering ‘true stories.’

For examples, see Snopes’ “Glurge Gallery.” Or just check your email in-box for the latest 10th-generation forwarded spam from your great aunt. Or attend church regularly where, sooner or later, you’re bound to encounter a glurge-y sermon illustration that comes from, or at least belongs in, that Snopes gallery.

Before we dive into the topic of glurge in more detail, let’s first cleanse the palate with a taste of something a bit sharper. Lark News offers a fine send-up of the pulpit-glurge sub-sub-species of missionary stories:

Missionary story careens out of control

CHARLESTON, W. Va. — John Lemier, missionary to the Congo, was given 20 minutes to share about God’s work and ask for financial support at Grace in the Valley church on Sunday. But somehow, witnesses say, he got off track …

He insisted that just before he came to the U.S., a Congolese child was swallowed by a boa constrictor, which then fell 20 stories off a cliff. The child, he said, came back to life after two mysterious strangers, both 9 feet tall and wearing shiny white clothes and large swords, led villagers on a 12-day trek to the foot of the cliff. Villagers revived the dead girl with a prayer Lemier had taught them, and when word spread throughout the jungle, 587,000 people were saved in a single meeting led by Lemier. …

(Read the rest at Lark News.)

  • Anonymous

    Wow.  That is some real fine drugs Mr. Lemier is doing.

  • Jonfrater

    Yeah, that’s extremely impressive, but probably not in the way Mr. Lemier thinks.

  • Mike

    I see that some folks need to get their satirometers recalibrated. Seriously, folks. It’s the Lark News! Look it up!

  • Izzy

    That reminds me a little of the stories I used to tell when I was eight–no real sense of either proportion or connection, just one weird/awesome thing leading to another. “And then a tiger jumped down out of a tree but I had a really really cool sword with diamonds on it and so I killed the tiger and a princess appeared because the tiger was gonna eat her…”

    Of course, I knew that stuff hadn’t really happened. Also, I was six. 

  • Anonymous

    Lemier’s story reminds me of an improv technique called “Yes and––” where you affirm whatever your partner says then add something else to it. So you start off asking for bus fare and end up preparing to take over the world, or something. Only he’s working on this solo.
    Or perhaps it’s like Dr. Seuss’ Mulberry Street with a baby near a snake playing the part of milk cart.

  • Viliphied
  • Viliphied
  • Anonymous

    Hee; Larks strikes me as a less biting version of The Onion. =) Some of the stories are pretty funny.

  • Anonymous

    Hee; Larks strikes me as a less biting version of The Onion. =) Some of the stories are pretty funny.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon
  • Dave Lartigue

    I think the most prevalent form in American discourse is politely and professionally referred to as bullshit. This is defined as a statement which may be true or may be false — the speaker neither knows nor cares — but this is completely irrelevant to the more important goal of simply giving the speaker what he wants. This to me is more evil and pernicious than lying, because lying is willfully “breaking the rules”, whereas bullshit rejects that there even are rules when it comes to self-interest.

  • Becca Stareyes

    That send-up of missionary conversion tales me a bit of stories you see elsewhere on the Internet — as a response to a rude customer or rude employee, a demanding boss, parents of a bratty child, or so on — that strikes me as a wish-fulfillment tale where the person getting terrible treatment responds in either a perfectly witty way or engages in some kind of revenge, to the approval of others.  (Usually when mocking these stories, people add ‘then everyone watching broke out into applause’.)  An example that comes to mind is when someone on Livejournal’s Metaquotes ended up describing an incident with a door-to-door missionary that was almost word-for-word a description of a Something*Positive cartoon.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_GVT7C7S6IP2OC44PFUZGAJ4OBM JohnK

    That sounds eerily like an early brainstorming session for the short story “The Lady, or the Tiger?”

  • Shadsie

    As with many things in life, Weird Al Yankovick has an answer!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KCSA7kKNu2Y&ob=av2e 

    “No I don’t want a bowl of Chicken Soup for the Soul… stop forwarding that crap to me!”

  • Cory Panshin

    It’s a bit off-topic — but please don’t use snake-oil salesmen as an example of lying.  According to Scientific American, genuine snake oil — which comes from sea snakes — is full of omega-3 fatty acids and has a genuine therapeutic effect.  It was only the imitation snake oil concocted on the cheap that gave the whole business a bad name.

  • Anonymous

    But what of the snake-oil salesman who began as a customer and who believes — or partly believes, or needs to believe — that the homeopathic tincture of snake-oil he’s peddling is or at least might be effective? That’s a more intriguing case, more deserving of the attention of a playwright…

    Would prose fiction do? Hawthorne’s “The Haunted Quack” deals with just such a scenario and addresses not just the quack’s psychology, but that of his patientscustomersmarks.

  • Anonymous

    I see that some folks need to get their satirometers recalibrated. Seriously, folks. It’s the Lark News! Look it up!

    I’m sorry, but I’d never heard of it before today.  I’ll cop to skimming Fred’s post, but back off, please.

  • Anonymous

    I posted this earlier but I think this is a good opportunity to remind you about lying to yourself1 Bel and Nebo bow down.        Their idols are carried by animals.     The statues are only heavy loads that must be carried;        they only make people tired. 2 These gods will all bow down.        They cannot save themselves        but will all be carried away like prisoners.  3 “Family of Jacob, listen to me!        All you people from Israel who are still alive, listen!     I have carried you since you were born;        I have taken care of you from your birth.  4 Even when you are old, I will be the same.        Even when your hair has turned gray, I will take care of you.     I made you and will take care of you.        I will carry you and save you.  5 “Can you compare me to anyone?        No one is equal to me or like me.  6 Some people are rich with gold        and weigh their silver on the scales.     They hire a goldsmith, and he makes it into a god.        Then they bow down and worship it. 7 They put it on their shoulders and carry it.        They set it in its place, and there it stands;        it cannot move from its place.     People may yell at it, but it cannot answer.        It cannot save them from their troubles.

  • http://twitter.com/Rhysdux Rhysdux

    I never heard of Lark News before, but now I have. Seems it’s an online comedy website not unlike The Onion.

    http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/mayweb-only/31.0a.html

    TV Tropes’ glurge section cites Fundies Say The Darnedest Things and Inner Michael as top-notch sources of glurge.

    http://fstdt.com/

    http://www.innermichael.com/

  • Anonymous

    Oh great flying spaghetti monster, Fundies Say the Darndest Things.

    When I am ancient, the doctors won’t have to put me on a pill to keep my blood pressure up — I’ll just read FSTDT once a day. That’ll do the job.

  • Shadsie

    Some more, non-Weird Al thoughts… 
     
    I wonder if “intent” is the key to what makes a lie/what makes an “innocent” lie/what makes a mistake. 
     
    I’ve been told by people that I was a “liar” (in the malicious “you’re evil!” sense) because I’m over the age of five and believe in God (or at least the possibility thereof, I’m more of an agnostic than hardcore sure-believer). Some people define all believers as (malicious) liars and (immoral) because we “lie to ourselves then lie to others, corrupt our children” or whatever because “no rational adult mind can believe in the unseen/Cosmic Santa Claus/etc.,” blah. To be fair, the only people I’ve encountered like this are hyperbolic Internet bozos, (and everyone knows I’m prone to hyperbole, myself), but it stands that the TRUTH is, if I were to say I definitely absolutely *didn’t* believe in God – it may make hyperbolic Internet bozos happy and think that I’d “found the truth” but it would be a *bald-faced lie.*  If God truly does not exist, you cannot call me a “liar” for believing in him/her/it – only mistaken.  It’s wrong to ascribe malice where there is none just because someone happens to disagree with you (even on something that gets your knickers in a knot).  I don’t believe in psychics – some people in my life do. My belief that they’ve been taken in by people doesn’t make them liars.
     
    There are of course the lies that people tell that have clear moral agency to them – people lying to hurt someone, or to gain something. Then there are trickier lies like people “embellishing a story” because (in the case of religious glurge or politics) they think that lying to people is “for their own good” – i.e. to save souls or to shore up people’s faith, or get them to vote for the right people/right kind of world. If you present your embellisment as flat-faced scientific truth (and not metaphor and symbol), that falls under dubious morality because it is essentially selfish: You’re trying to change people, or keep them in “your group.” And in the end, the glurgey stuff winds up having the opposite effect – when people find out it’s a hoax, you can’t expect them to take the “it was a lesson for your faith/something for your good” seriously.
     
    Then there’s another kind of lying, one I gleefully participate in all the time:  Fiction and art. “Art is a lie that tells the truth.”  I enjoy writing stories about other worlds about people I’ve never met except inside my own head and things that never happened.  I usually try to illustrate some underlying truth about human nature/our world with them, but it’s not “lying” in the moral sense in that I present my fiction as fiction from the get-go.  Everyone who reads my stuff knows that I’ve never met a talking gryphon or been to a world of perpetual night inhabited by half-deer people, and they can simply appreciate a good story with some philosophical ponderings threaded therein.    
     

  • Orion Anderson

    A friend of mine has for various reason attended a great number of churches.  he is always happy to warn you away from ones run by what he calls “The Glurgy-Clergy”

  • Anonymous

    When I see how many lies, half-truths, white lies there are being told I have to think what the greatest headmaster hogwarts has ever known said about the matter.

    The truth. It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution

  • Anonymous

    I guess the anti-glurge is stuff like Christine O’Donnell’s stories about “dabbling” in witchcraft and witnessing a human sacrifice.  It is so utterly ridiculous, but seems like it would have the same audience at glurge stories.

  • Anonymous

    Wait, so when you were six, you told stories about how you were actually eight?

  • Anonymous

    Wait, so when you were six, you told stories about how you were actually eight?

  • Mike

    And I’ll cop to being unnecessarily harsh, but it’s frustrating (and telling) how quickly people will accept something that fits their world view. When I read this, my first reaction was “This sounds like it could have come straight out of The Onion!”  “Wait a minute….”

  • Anonymous

    “To be fair, the only people I’ve encountered like this are hyperbolic Internet bozos”

    I think that you have hit on one of the biggest problems on the Web. Not hyperbolic bozos exactly, but the difficulty of reading how something is meant to be taken. Is it hyperbole, is it irony, or does someone really believe that? Also authors can’t read how someone is reacting to their comments. That’s why we have so many people who act like assholes in ways undreamed of in the real world.
    The reason you don’t encounter people like this in real life is because almost nobody acts like this in real life. Very few religious people in general would go to a seminar on the evils of religion, then shout a bunch of scripture at that participants. Similarly you don’t see too many atheists disrupting church services. Yet I think we all seen the internet equivalent in comments sections.
    No real solutions present themselves, but it does irritate me to no end.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    It is so utterly ridiculous, but seems like it would have the same audience at glurge stories.

    TvTropes has a name for people who fall for such stories: Glurge Addicts.

  • Rikalous

    When I am ancient, the doctors won’t have to put me on a pill to keep my
    blood pressure up — I’ll just read FSTDT once a day. That’ll do the
    job.

    There’s a risk of developing a tolerance for it, though. Oh look, someone else who thinks accepting evolution makes you a Nazi and an immoral nihlist. Maybe there’ll be something interesting if I hit “random”.

  • http://twitter.com/mikailborg Michael O’Brien

    As an actor, it is often important for me to convince myself of complete falsehoods in order to portray a believable character. The trick is to remember to turn it off when the filming’s done for the day.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    Y’know, whenever my wife says something and then realizes she was mistaken, she always says “Wait: I lied.”  It bugs me a very little bit.

  • Lunch Meat

    The most annoying glurges, to me, are the ones that try to prove themselves via circular reasoning. I heard one on Sunday morning radio (blegh) the other day, the usual stuff about a father who had to sacrifice his son for his son’s friend because he couldn’t save them both and it was so inspirational and sad, etc, etc. But it was told from a “once-removed” point of view–as in, “A preacher told this story in one of his sermons.” It continued after the story-within-a-story was over: “After the service, two teenage boys came up to the preacher and said, ‘We don’t think that story is very realistic.’ And the preacher said, ‘You’re right, it’s not. But I was the little boy he saved’.”

    The goal here is that the audience says “What?? That was totally my objection too! But the guy telling the story is the one it happened to! That proves it!” and their defenses are destroyed.

    It’s the same story with “God exists because the Bible says so and the Bible is God’s word” and “L&J’s idea of the apocalypse is true because they wrote a book in which it happened.”

  • http://twitter.com/Jenk3 Jen K

    “To be fair, the only people I’ve encountered like this are hyperbolic Internet bozos”

    There are others. Semi-famous case in point: Mike Warnke. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Warnke

  • ako

    That was exactly what happened when I was eight and decided to write a novel!  Except instead of being about me, it was about a succession of warrior woman with really long names and no discernible personality traits.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    What about the story of the little boy from the planet Krypton.  His father warned his fellows about the impending doom, but they would not listen, and their planet was destroyed.  However, the father managed to save his little baby son by launching him off to another planet.  

    … and that planet, was Earth.  

    And he went on to become a great hero fighting for Truth, Justice, and the American Way.  

    So the moral of the story?  Do not listen to people raving about the end of the world, because their kids get to grow up to be heroes on another planet.  

  • Rikalous

    What about the story of the little boy from the planet Krypton.  His
    father warned his fellows about the impending doom, but they would not
    listen, and their planet was destroyed.  However, the father managed to
    save his little baby son by launching him off to another planet.  

    … and that planet, was Earth.  

    And he went on to become a great hero fighting for Truth, Justice, and the American Way.  

    So
    the moral of the story?  Do not listen to people raving about the end
    of the world, because their kids get to grow up to be heroes on another
    planet.

    That’s an interesting point. Kryptonian asshattery did indirectly save Earth from threats that could have destroyed it. Earth has produced a disproportionate number of Green Lanterns, all of whom have served with distinction (except for that Parallelax thing, and who could have seen that coming?). Therefor, the entire universe owes a debt to Kryptonian asshattery.

  • http://thatbeerguy.blogspot.com Chris Doggett

    And in a similar vein, you have something like this:

    Mitchell:
    So here she’s saying to Lester Holt that raising the debt ceiling is to
    take care of future money not past money, which is not factual.

    Cook: It’s
    not true, but on the other hand she’s not saying anything that a lot of
    Republican caucus attendees or primary voters would disagree with.

    Mitchell: So, politically it’s fine.

    Cook: Yeah, politically I think it’s fine …

  • Daughter

    Ok, now I’ve just wasted an afternoon reading TV Tropes because of this post… but I did find one that now makes sense to me.  My daughter has only recently started watching Disney channel shows, and it drives me crazy that it seems like every other one has a ditzy Asian girl in it.  Sure enough, Asian Airhead is a trope, one that has become so common at Disney that TV Tropes writes, “It’s a miracle there haven’t been mass protests at Disney yet.”  (Less frequent and less egregious Disney tropes: the black nerd and the Latina love interest).

  • Daughter
  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_KZLWOOFAFMDKUSPTLTBN67QVUA C

    A looooong time ago at a very fundie Southern Baptist youth camp, the preacher told the audience a sickening story about a girl who smoked pot while babysitting. When the parents came home and asked where the baby was, she said, “I don’t have a baby, but I have a turkey roasting in the oven.” This was supposed to scare us all away from the evils of drugs.

    Years later, I found out that the story was an urban legend. Really, in the preacher’s defense, the internet wasn’t around so he couldn’t fact-check it, and he probably had heard the story from someone he trusted, who probably heard it from someone they trusted, and so on.

    Still, whether he knowingly lied or not, it was just an example of preaching shock and revulsion instead of truth and love, and it pushed me a little further away from conservafundievangelical Christianity.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_KZLWOOFAFMDKUSPTLTBN67QVUA C

    Oh, by the way, here it is: http://www.snopes.com/horrors/drugs/babysitter.asp

    It’s apparently been around since the 1970s, and I heard that story at camp in 1993 or 1994.

  • FangsFirst

    “Is it hyperbole, is it irony, or does someone really believe that? Also
    authors can’t read how someone is reacting to their comments. That’s why
    we have so many people who act like assholes in ways undreamed of in
    the real world.

    This is why I am very reluctant to call anyone a liar online (unless I know them personally and know they are lying, but I don’t think that has ever come up).
    Or a troll.

    It’s kind of a crappy thing to do, in case you are wrong.
    Once that label is applied, wherever it is believed, it’s permanent. If you are a liar or troll, how can anything you say undo it except “Okay! You’re right! I lied/trolled”? And if you are doing neither? What the hell do you do?

    I mean, like Shadsie said:

    I’ve been told by people that I was a “liar” (in the malicious “you’re
    evil!” sense) because I’m over the age of five and believe in God (or at
    least the possibility thereof, I’m more of an agnostic than hardcore
    sure-believer). [...] but it stands that the TRUTH is,
    if I were to say I definitely absolutely *didn’t* believe in God – it
    may make hyperbolic Internet bozos happy and think that I’d “found the
    truth” but it would be a *bald-faced lie.*

  • http://jamoche.dreamwidth.org/ Jamoche

    See also “Axe Cop” – story by a 5 year old boy, art by his big brother, a professional comic book artist. Surreal doesn’t begin to describe it.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    I like how the Lark News sendup hit all the bases of Classic Spectacular Missionary Miracle Story:
    * Remote Third-World Location
    * Angelic Appearances
    * Raise the Dead
    * Multitudes Saved


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