Monday, December 10, 2012

"Does my ass look big?"

Wife: “Honey, do these pants make my ass look big?”
Husband: “Sweetheart, your ass is huge. And it’s gonna look huge, no matter what you wear.”

(Note: As a concession to the fact that most of those reading these posts are from the good ole U.S. of A., I have employed the word “ass” here in reference to the gluteus maximus and gluteus medius muscles. Non-American readers, please note that the speakers are not referring to a member of the genus Equus.)

A few times at gatherings, the question has arisen: When is it appropriate to lie, if ever? This is where we get into one of those areas that are tricky both philosophically and socially.

Philosophically, truth is not as easy to define as it might seem. When the sky is clear, is a simple statement such as “The sky is blue” true? Or perhaps we could ask, how true is it? Why is there a problem? Well, first of all, what do we actually mean by “the sky”? Is there any such thing as the sky? Because (I hate to break it to you) there is not a nice blue dome overhanging us. “The sky” is as much an artificial construct as “the equator”, perhaps more so, because at least one can precisely delineate the position of the equator, whereas it is impossible to say where the sky begins and ends. Then, of course, there is the problem of “blue”. There is no precise wavelength (as far as I am aware) by which blue can be defined: blue is a region of the electromagnetic spectrum that grades gradually into violet in one direction and green in the other. We have all had arguments, I imagine, over whether a garment of clothing is more bluish than greenish. And then, is every part of the sky blue, or are some parts bluer than others? And finally, of course, there is the problematic word “is”, in honour of which countless volumes of philosophy have been constructed. “The sky” “is” “blue”, because the blue(ish) wavelengths of light are absorbed by gas molecules and then scattered in every direction. So is it blue, in the sense that blue is really a quality that can be attributed to the sky itself?  This simple example is just that, an example. Almost any simple statement we make can be broken down and analysed in this way, until its obvious truth is far from obvious. I think this is probably why I am a little insane. “In” “my” “own” “mind” “I” “am” “haunted” “by” “quotation” “marks” “!”

From a philosophical perspective, therefore, we probably rarely tell the “truth”.

And then there is the social context. Socially, what do we mean by a lie? Does it mean the same as in the philosophical context? I suspect not. None of us, I think, would accuse someone who called an ugly baby beautiful of lying. (Ok, I know some of you will say that there is no such thing as an ugly baby. In a way, I think that just confirms the point I am making here). Speech in a social context is not simply about truth in an objective or factual sense, if there is any such thing. Speech is also, and perhaps primarily, about communication. Which is why we can say something like, “I’m feeling blue” today. This is certainly not true in a literal sense. But we are prepared to concede that it may be true in another, less clearly defined sense. Indeed, no one (except perhaps the speaker) is any position to challenge the veracity of such a statement. Then there are also statements that we characterise as “little white lies”. “Sweetheart, your ass could never look big in anything.” (From an evolutionary perspective, this may be an excellent example of survival of the fittest. Only males who exhibit this capacity to lie “whitely” survive to produce offspring.) And when someone asks, “How are you?”, and you reply, “I’m fine, just fine”, when, in fact, you may be anything but – would anyone accuse you of lying? In this case, the function of speech is neither to convey truth nor to communicate. It is part of a non-verbal ritual in the same way that a handshake is. The words are no longer really words, just conventional sounds.

So there we are. I’m sure it’s all clear now.

It’s probably worth noting that the husband in the opening dialogue represents an earlier, now extinct species of hominid.

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