05/10/2005 04:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Note to James Pinkerton: Metaphors are not Lies

Since I’ve spent considerable time in Africa, I had planned on using my first post to follow-up the two previous pieces on Sudan by Sen. Corzine and Joe Scarborough.

However, after coming across James Pinkerton’s earlier piece on “Blogs, Lies, and Videotapes,” I think some ground rules are in order. To wit: call me a fool, a dolt, a dunce, or even, if you want to get all crazy, a schlemiel. But do not call me a liar.

Crucially, the reason I say that is not to defend my honor -- as befits the son of minister, I surely lost that some time ago -- but to protect the possibility of genuine debate here on this page.

If you think I’m overreacting, bear in mind that the fundamental assumption of all debate is not that the arguments proffered are factually true or logical consistent, but rather, that they are genuinely intended to arrive at a consensus on a given issue. If the arguments turn out to be lies –- if, that is, their intention is not genuine –- then debating them is useless insofar as the trust on which an eventual consensus would depend is no longer possible.

Consequently, Pinkerton’s statement that there is a “possibility that everything on this site is a lie” is far more serious than it might otherwise seem. For if that “possibility” were proved true –- if everything published on this page was a lie –- then the principles of debate would no longer obtain and the blog itself could no longer be viewed as a constructive enterprise.

What irks me most about all this, however, is that while Pinkerton himself understands just how grave his allegation is, he isn’t brave enough to stand up fully in support of it.

Rather, he tries to hide behind cheap caveats like “not necessarily a premeditated lie” or “the content posted here might be, objectively speaking, a lie—insofar as it will soon enough be revealed to be, simply, not true.” Never mind that there’s no such thing as a non-premeditated lie, or that any content which is “simply not true” is, eo ipso, an inaccuracy rather than a lie. What he’s really doing with those caveats is using “lie” as a metaphor for any utterance that is not “objectively” true. Yet in doing so he’s plunged himself into a linguistic abyss. The minute you treat lying metaphorically, metaphor itself becomes a lie; and the minute that happens, no language in the world becomes capable of conveying the truth.*

If Pinkerton really wants to venture down that road, then so be it. I’m not willing to join him, and neither should anybody else. From the suffering in Sudan to a health care crisis here at home, there are far more pressing concerns for us to worry about.

*The assumption here rests on the current understanding that all linguistic acts are inherently associational -- in which case metaphor is the most manifest example of the way all language ultimately works.