Wed | Oct 17, 2018

What lies behind the truth

Published:Sunday | December 13, 2015 | 12:00 AM

The Gleaner is a family newspaper. Therefore, I expect a certain amount of tact when it's dealing with, let's call them, sensitive topics.

So how then does one explain the editorial about Senators Malahoo Forte and Arthur Williams? This was the offending passage:

"Both Arthur Williams and Marlene Malahoo Forte can't be telling the truth. One of them is lying about who knew what, and when, about the signing of those now infamous, undated resignation letters. Veracity, until otherwise can be established, seems to stand firmer on the side of Mr Williams."

Pshawww! What? It's that word 'lying' that caused me to spill my morning coffee. Why wasn't a euphemism employed?

Let's revisit some first principles immediately! Technically, euphemism is use of "a mild, indirect, or vague term for one that is considered harsh, blunt, or offensive". So, for instance, I took that definition from a low-cost online dictionary. Actually it's called, but because I don't want to own up the freeness, I say "low cost". So you get the idea. Ease the pain with soft words.

Euphemism is a welcome feature of life, at least for me. For instance, I know lots of bald people, and that's not the coolest thing in the world. So instead of putting things baldly, as it were, and saying that my friend "suffers early onset male pattern baldness", I tidy it up a little and put a decent spin on it and say that my friend "has an alternative hairstyle", is "Mr Clean", or is "follicularly challenged".

And I want to emphasise that I'm a great fan of this approach, as long as it doesn't lead to a pattern of living in fantasy and denying reality. I mention that negative aspect of euphemism because I have found, unfortunately, excessive politeness can encourage it. That, in turn, can lead to personal unpleasantness, as, for instance, when inveterate helpless drunkards really begin to believe that they're just "having some cough syrup", or even "just having a bit of fun".


Politician drunkards


By the way, for years the British press, fearing libel, simply referred to drunks, particularly politician drunkards, as "tired and confused".

Of course, in the political realm, the euphemism can be deadly. Consider at the most extreme end of the spectrum Stalin's infamous "imprisonment without right to correspondence", which meant that the man had had a Kalashnikov emptied in his head. That's why he couldn't correspond! We are all familiar with "collateral

damage" as an inevitable feature of our modern ways of waging war.

But politics has delivered so many wonderful euphemisms, I can only hit a few more faves. Remember South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford who went missing for about a week while his aides claimed he was out hiking? When it emerged that he had been chilling with his Argentine girlfriend south of the border, the phrase "hiking the Appalachian trail" became the sensitive man's descriptor for a tryst.

Less amorously, when it was discovered that Silvio Berlusconi's henchmen had hired escort Patrizia D'Addario to give him aid and succour in a time of need, Berlusconi's defence was that he hadn't personally employed her, but was only "the final user" of the service. Thus, being a "final user" became a byword for whoring.

Now I accept that there are some matters where, out of journalism's requirement to defend the public interest, euphemism has to be put aside. So I don't expect to see a headline saying: "Health audit shows that many premature younglings have passed on and gone to rest in peace." No. It has to be: "Babies die!" So that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about when something's obvious, but just dropping it out there is a tad harsh.

So this business of euphemism had initially cropped up because of Senator Malahoo Forte's explanations while Floyd Morris was searching every nook and cranny of the Senate for her. This was when she was eventually "seen" by parliamentary cameras loitering in the lunchroom, even though officially she was in the toilet.

But even so, and to get back to the present matter: The Gleaner's use of that term, 'lying', riled me as part of Malahoo's fan base.


Dodging a bullet


Let's revisit it with some of the other choices that were available to the editorial writer. Some euphemisms for lying have the sense of dodging a bullet. So instead of saying someone 'lied', we could say that they 'stretched the truth', 'sidestepped the real issue', or 'dodged'. There's a lot of mileage to be had from this avenue of explaining things.

Other substitutes for the L-word allow that the speaker may have been buying time to relieve the pressure. So maybe Marlene was 'temporising', or 'equivocating', as the case may be.

At its worst, there isn't much room to manoeuvre when untruths are being deliberately spoken. That's when words such as 'falsify', 'mislead', and 'misinform' get dredged up, all with that implication of active malevolence.

But personally, I would prefer to put a positive spin on things, although 'spinning' itself has become a placeholder for not speaking the truth. But there's that element of creativity that we encourage in English class with the immortal words of every good English teacher: "Good bulls**t is better than bad cows**t!" So, it could be that Marlene was 'inventing' or 'fabricating', rather than straight up lying.

Finally, there's the time-honoured business of beating around the bush. That's where the editorial writer could have said that the senator may have been 'prevaricating', 'hedging', 'dissembling', or 'dissimulating'.

With all these choices - and there are many more - one wonders why the editorial writer chose such strong language. In future, if none of my suggestions here are acceptable, perhaps we need to develop an indigenous code-phrase, like 'recorded in the lunchroom', or 'gone to the toilet', so that editorials and commentary don't undermine confidence in our leaders and frighten the public.

• Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to