Saturday, May 31, 2014

Laying Layers and the Lays They Tell

Throw Grammar from the Train's post for May argues that the distinction between lie (as in lie down, not as in tell a lie) and lay, is being lost, because it's just too confusing.  Only a few anal compulsive grammar obsessives (like me) ever learned it anyway, and:
That's not because we're a nation of semiliterate texting addicts; lay and lie have never been easy to distinguish.  In fact, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, the verbs were not well differentiated until the 18th-century usage juggernaut got rolling. From 1300 to 1800, “the usage was unmarked: Sir Francis Bacon used [lay for lie] in the final and most polished edition of his essays in 1625.”
This doesn't bother me, because as Jan (the blogger) indicates, the distinction between lie and lay was not a genuine feature of the language but a distinction invented and imposed by people who didn't really understand grammar.  But it does make me wonder about the other sense of lie, the sense of deliberately saying something that isn't true.  I suppose people don't confuse it because the meaning is obviously different. Though have you noticed how many people, when they found they made a mistake, will say brightly -- semi-ironically, I think -- I lied!  Even some of my Mexican friends do it, saying Miento, miento (I lie, I lie) when they realize they misspoke.  It's not a grammatical issue, it's one of semantics, but because lying and truthtelling are also moral issues, it's that as well.

So a friend shared (in the Facebook sense) this meme today.

She didn't actually endorse it.  She added a remark to the effect that she was rushed and would read it later, so presumably she shared it so she'd be able to find it when she had time to read it.  (I often do this, but by "liking" rather than sharing.)  I did some looking around on the Internet and found that the information in the image has been debunked numerous times.  I put those links into a comment to her, and after a moment's thought added another comment, linking to the Ninth Commandment (Exodus 20:16) at a Bible site: "You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor."

My friend is the daughter of a minister, and remains devoutly (though not too obnoxiously) Christian.  Unlike some other people I know, she doesn't get all pissy when I post corrections to disinformational memes she passes along.  But it still never seems to occur to her to check those memes herself.  And you'd think, wouldn't you, that people who take their religion seriously, would be concerned that what they send out into the Intertoobz would be true?  According to very old canons of truth and falsehood, it's not enough just to refrain from saying something you know to be false, hard as that standard is to meet.  You also must try to make sure that what you are saying is true.  This means, among other things, that you have to evaluate what you get from other people and want to pass along. This, evidently, is even harder.  Yet the religious believers I know, be they conservative or liberal, seem to give it little thought, and that was true long before Facebook or the Internet.

I wrote last week about the Tasteful Jesus Lady, who despite her flaunted faith also doesn't care much whether what she's saying is true or not.  But I reached a personal tipping point about this during the 2012 election season, and the worst offenders were ostensibly secular Obama supporters like my liberal law professor friend.  (To be scrupulous, the avowed conservatives were just as bad, but I expected no better from them.  My bias.)  Then there's my fictive nephew, who often shares village-atheist memes on Facebook, like this one yesterday, from something called "The Free-Thinking Society":

This meme has the dubious distinction of being false in almost every particular, from the number of translators who worked on the New Testament to the claim that the KJV was "edited" from "previous translations" rather than translated directly from the original languages, and more.  Some of the errors are insultingly trivial, such as the reference to "scrolls": all New Testament manuscripts, including the earliest, are codices, not scrolls; but whether a document was written on a scroll or a codex tells you nothing about its truthfulness or lack thereof.  (The motive, I think, is to insinuate that because scrolls are totally primitive, what was written in them needn't be taken seriously by enlightened Free Thinkers.)  Since none of these facts are that hard to track down, whoever made this meme should be regarded as, if not a liar, then at least someone who doesn't care whether he or she is telling the truth.  If "Free Thinking" means freedom to make stuff up, I could get that in a church.

Speaking of lies, my friend got the meme about charities from a page called WorldTruth.TV.  When I went to download the meme to repost it here I found this one next to it, a cartoon of a crowd of white adults (weirdly enough; not only all middle-aged adults but all male) in multicolored clothing walking through a portal labeled PUBLIC SCHOOL and emerging all in gray, with this caption:
The public school system: Usually a twelve year sentence of mind control. Crushing creativity, smashing individualism, encouraging collectivism and compromise, destroying the exercise of intellectual inquiry, twisting it instead into meek subservience to authority.
There's a lot to criticize about the public school system, of course.  But I know of no indication that private schools are any different.  There's always been a divide between people who think schools should teach children to think and people who think schools should teach children to obey, and in general the latter group has usually gotten their way.  One of the reasons for religious schools is to make sure that the students are indoctrinated with a given cult's dogmas.  I get the impression that many people who complain that schools indoctrinate children really just want kids indoctrinated with their propaganda, not someone else's.

A friend of the friend who posted the Free Thinking meme attacked me for correcting it.  Significantly, he attacked me personally, not bothering to address the factual issues.  That's what most people think debate means, I suspect.  And then think again about the people who, realizing they said something untrue, say I lied.  Their tone of voice indicates they're joking, kind of, but I wonder.  The difference between making a mistake and deliberately telling a falsehood seems to be as difficult for many people to grasp as the difference between lie and lay, and it's a lot more important.