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Cherie dictionary appeal

Gordon Brown told the Labour Party conference today:

I’ve worked with Tony Blair for almost ten years as Chancellor – the longest relationship of any Prime Minister and Chancellor in history. And it has been a privilege for me to work with and for the most successful ever Labour leader and Labour Prime Minister.

Reuters reports that, seeing this bit on a television monitor outside the auditorium as she passed by, Cherie Blair said: “Well, that’s a lie.” But how exactly is it a lie? Brown has indeed worked as long as he says with Blair. And it is just factually correct that Blair is “the most successful ever Labour leader and Labour Prime Minister”, in terms of numbers of elections won, whatever you think of his policies. So I suppose the perceived lie must be in the word “privilege”. Since by most accounts Brown doesn’t actually like Blair, Mrs Blair supposed he must have been lying when he said it had been a privilege to work with him.

But this is not what “privilege” means. Brown evidently uses it in OED‘s sense 2: “A right, advantage or immunity granted to or enjoyed by a person, or a body or class of persons, beyond the common advantages of others […] a special advantage or benefit.” (Therein lie the traces of the original Latin word for a law passed about a private person.) Well, one can hardly deny that the job of Chancellor to the most successful Labour prime minister ever is a privilege. You can be privileged to work with a very powerful man even if you consider him an idiot. Evidently Brown chose his words very carefully, unable to bring himself to say that it had been a pleasure or a delight or an unalloyed joy or a bodacious thrill to work for Blair, but perfectly correct to call it a privilege. This is not a case of Unspeak but very precise Speak. But why bother if you’re going to be accused of dishonesty anyway?

  1. 1  sw  September 25, 2006, 6:14 pm 

    Please note, the reuters report also quotes a member of Mrs. Blair’s troop denying that she said it – in other words, calling the claim that she called Brown a liar a lie. Perhaps it is a reporter’s privilege to report upon what he or she thought he or she might have overheard, even when this is adamantly denied?

    Also, she may be saying that it is a lie that Brown has worked “with and for” Blair – obviously not a total lie, but if Brown has recently been predominantly working against Blair, then she is pointing out, perhaps rather carelessly, how his careful diction omits some unsavoury truths, and so is a little bit of a . . . lie.

  2. 2  SP  September 25, 2006, 6:22 pm 

    Yes, the story is being officially denied, and Reuters is standing by it.

    Whatever Brown did recently, it remains true that he has worked “with and for” Blair. I’m fascinated by your concept of “a little bit of a lie”, though. Surely something is either a lie or not?

  3. 3  sw  September 25, 2006, 7:33 pm 

    Right, I said that it “remains true that he has worked “with and for” Blair”; I can’t imagine that I disputed that. I also said that from certain perspectives, Brown has also worked _against_ Blair, and so may be lying when he implies that all he has done for the past decade-plus is work “with and for” Blair, when he sums up their relationship in that way, as though those words adequately and honestly describe their relationship.

    But you are fascinated by one of my concepts – thank you! I like to be fascinating. Unfortunately, I cannot claim all the credit for “a little bit of a lie”. Haven’t you ever heard that old courtroom doozy, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”

    It is possible that a sentence, without being an outright lie, can convey a meaning inconsistent with certain facts, often facts that sentence is trying to elide. Hence, that sentence is not “the whole truth”, and cannot honestly claim to be “nothing but the truth”, and so might be considered “a little bit of a lie”.

    I am glad, though, that I do not live in a world where a truth is a truth, a lie is a lie, and that’s all there is to it!

  4. 4  bobw  September 25, 2006, 7:51 pm 

    The lie may be in the word “successful”. Brown only has the opportunity to make this statement because Blair is suddenly so obviously un-successful. And part of the reason for that is Brown, who has lead the charge to make Blair step down.

    Mrs Blair is accusing of Brown of saying “I come not to bury Caesar, but to praise him.”

  5. 5  SP  September 25, 2006, 8:19 pm 

    SW, you appear to be assuming a conceptual symmetry I am not sure exists. Though “half-truth” can be a useful concept, I am still having trouble with “half-lie” or “a little bit of a lie” or whatever, to describe something that, as we agree, is not in fact a lie. I don’t think, for example, that the other half of a half-truth is necessary a lie.

    Perhaps the problem is that “truth” is an epistemological concept, while “lie” is a psychological one. The opposite of “truth” is “falsehood”, not “lie”.

    I do like it when people get all Shakespearean here.

  6. 6  sw  September 25, 2006, 8:41 pm 

    SP, No. That’s a generous escape route you’re offering me, but I won’t take it. By “lie”, I was including falsehoods, and wasn’t really too worried about psychological vs epistemological distinctions, although perhaps I should have been (you may pounce viciously here). But in return, you should accept that I was offering you no symmetries; you brought up “half-truth”, ’twas not I.

    What part of “It is possible that a sentence, without being an outright lie, can convey a meaning inconsistent with certain facts, often facts that sentence is trying to elide” do you not understand? And do you not think that somebody who speaks such a sentence might be lying, just an eensy-weensy bit, even though no epistemological flaws are to be found in the uttered sentence? Again, the answer may be psychological, but it might also be epistemological and, if you twist my arm, ontological. Why, it’s Grease Lightening . . .

  7. 7  sw  September 25, 2006, 8:53 pm 

    Now, IANAL BIKSWI, and so I think that even legally-speaking, which I will now freely do as IANAL BIKSWI, there is a recognition that truth and falsehood can both be found in the same statement, depending on interpretations, content, inflection, etc.; hence that statement about whole truths and nothing but ’em. For you to fail to see this is quite extraordinary. YANAL BYKSWI, and so have ample expertise.

    (I am very proud of my new acronym, BTW.)

  8. 8  David Duff  September 25, 2006, 8:59 pm 

    My *New* OED provides a secondary meaning to privilige, thus: “something regarded as a rare opportunity and bringing particular pleasure”.

    In this context, you, or others, might call this a lie, I couldn’t possibly comment!

  9. 9  sw  September 25, 2006, 9:04 pm 

    I think David Duff brings up a good point: Brown really might have been including “bringing particular pleasure” in his presumed definition of “privilege” (which, after all, you have otherwise provided for him above), in which case, he might well have been lying about _that_, while telling the truth about your OED sense 2.

  10. 10  DF  September 25, 2006, 9:06 pm 

    Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth
    “Rip down all hate,” I screamed
    Lies that life is black and white
    Spoke from my skull. I dreamed
    Romantic facts of musketeers
    Foundationed deep, somehow.
    Ah, but I was so much older then,
    I’m younger than that now.

  11. 11  SP  September 25, 2006, 10:42 pm 

    SW, for sure you were offering a symmetry, in bringing up the concept of “the whole truth”, implying partial truth, and offering it as comparable with your idea, still somewhat obscure to me, of a partial lie.

    IANAP but I feel it can be useful to distinguish between the epistemological, the psychological, the botanical etc.

    What part of “It is possible that a sentence, without being an outright lie, can convey a meaning inconsistent with certain facts, often facts that sentence is trying to elide” do you not understand?

    I’m glad you asked. I believe I understand all of it as English, but I do not see how it translates into “a little bit of a lie”. Perhaps you can offer a clearer example?

    I agree David’s point is good. If Brown really meant that sense, then he was clearly speaking through his hat.

    Is there no subject on which RZ has not already spoken the whole truth?

  12. 12  bobw  September 26, 2006, 4:20 am 

    David Duff gives us a great clue to understanding the nuances of British political speech:

    “you, or others, might call this a lie, I couldn’t possibly comment! “

    repeats the frequent remark of the arch-villain, played by Ian Richardson, of the brilliant British political drama “House of Cards.”

  13. 13  BigMacAttack  September 26, 2006, 10:57 pm 

    Tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth? I don’t think it is possible and it might take a lot of time.

    He certainly equivocated which seems to be synonym for lie. Or is that a lie? But the result was certainly an equivocation? But does that mean he lied? You probably need to do it intentionally for it to have been a lie?

    It really seems like he equivocated. Which means he either lied or nearly lied.

    I am not sure if a near lie is the same as a little bit of a lie. Maybe SW could tell us?

    I think Cherie Blair was right, he was a bit too clever with the truth, he lied.

    Aren’t you suppossed to be making things clearer? I am not sure you are.

  14. 14  sw  September 27, 2006, 12:52 am 

    Your carnivorous approach to question marks, truth and noms de guerre deserves immediate response. Perhaps Steven can discuss with you the word “equivocation”, but I will certainly answer the question you pose to me in particular. A near lie is indeed a close cousin to a little bit of a lie. The former is a truth so pared down that with the slightest change in intonation, or a fractional change in the expression’s structure, it would become a lie. But the facts (or fact) as chosen are unimpeachable. A little bit of a lie is indeed a lie, but it is swaddled with truth. I hope that helps. IANAL AINWB, but I nevertheless think that such shadings to truth and falsehoods are important, especially outside a court of law.

  15. 15  Steven  September 27, 2006, 11:53 am 

    BigMacAttack, sorry for not making things clearer; or perhaps you should blame SW, who continues to conflate “lie” with “falsehood” in a manner I find invidious…

  16. 16  sw  September 27, 2006, 12:51 pm 

    Well, Steven, you did such a good job clarifying the terms – especially by elegantly distinguishing “lie” from “falsehood” – in your original post, that I felt obliged to muddy the waters with my invidious commentary. Your original post was too crystal clear on this topic, blindingly clear, and I have tried to provide some murkiness so that we will not be blinded by the rays of light. At the end of the day, I suppose, I can only say that I have only sought to protect the masses by dulling the sharp edge of your commentary lest it cut them open.

  17. 17  Steven  September 27, 2006, 1:05 pm 

    Of course there was no reason for me to distinguish “lie” from “falsehood” in my original post, for it is not I who is proposing the concept of “a little bit of a lie”, while at the same time saying “such shadings to truth and falsehoods are important”. But since you ignore my question at #11 I shall leave you to your effortful sarcasm.

  18. 18  sw  September 27, 2006, 2:09 pm 

    I assume that you are asking me to address whether or not there is a topic about which Bob Dylan has not “already spoken the whole truth”? Gladly! There is no topic that has escaped RZ’s eagle-eye.

    Oh – I see – there was a question addressed to me. “Perhaps you can offer a clearer example?” A clearer example of a “little bit of a lie”? The other night I was instructed to clean out the cat litter, and I responded, as I just responded to your question about Bob Dylan, “Gladly!” Now, I am quite glad to make my cats’ lives better in this fashion, and I really don’t object to this chore, so it is not untrue that I could do it “gladly”; at the same time, I was not strictly “glad” to do it, and not as enthusiastic about the task as “gladly” would imply – both the specific task and tearing myself away from what I was probably doing at the time (in all likelihood, closely reading and contriving to ruin your life by not agreeing with every little thing you say). So, it was a little bit of a lie, because there was a falsehood there (that the task would be undertaken “gladly”), swaddled in truths (that the overall project – making my cats’ lives better – is one that I do undertake gladly, that the task is not one that I abhor and that sometimes provides anecdotes that amuse me). Are there psychological dimensions to this? Of course. Now, regarding Cherie above: you say that there was no reason for you to distinguish a lie from a falsehood, and yet you attack Cherie for claiming that Brown reported a falsehood, and as you do so you use the word “lie”. Shortly afterwards, the distinction appears for you when your rather limited assessment of “privilege” comes under attack.

    And thank you for noting how much effort I put into my sarcasm; I would hate for people to think that I could just whip that off.

  19. 19  Steven  September 27, 2006, 3:17 pm 

    WTF? It was Cherie who used the word “lie” in the first place.

    I now understand “a little bit of a lie” better from your excellent feline example, though it is not quite analogous, since as not with “gladly” there are quite distinct meanings of “privilege”, eg mine and David Duff’s. If Brown meant the first then what he said is not even a little bit of a lie. Perhaps, however, he knew that it would also be taken in the second sense, as it was by Cherie, and in allowing such an interpretation we might say he was bullshitting.

  20. 20  DF  September 27, 2006, 4:03 pm 

    “Perhaps, however, he knew that it would also be taken in the second sense, as it was by Cherie, and in allowing such an interpretation we might say he was bullshitting.”

    There’s no perhaps about it. He was bullshitting, she was being frank.

  21. 21  Steven  September 27, 2006, 4:23 pm 

    Actually, since there is no way Cherie could have known exactly what meaning of “privilege” Brown intended or otherwise thought of, she was not justified in calling it a “lie” – though I do enjoy the use of the term “frank” to describe rude or crude language by people with whom one is sympathetic.

  22. 22  DF  September 27, 2006, 4:53 pm 

    I am rather sympathetic to her on this point. Brown was clearly bullshitting, as you so frankly put it, and this is what everyone understood Cherie to be saying. Whether Cherie chose the best word or not to express herself is clearly a matter of debate. It may have been more exact for her to say “that’s a bit of lie”, or “that’s the truth but not the whole truth” or “His praise is like Anthony’s praise of Brutus”, or “Bullshit”.

    I am surprised you haven’t moved on to analyse what Tony meant when he called Brown “remarkable”.

  23. 23  Steven  September 27, 2006, 4:58 pm 

    Of course, a person may be “remarkable” in his oafishness or his capacity for evildoing. Blair was bullshitting in exactly the same as Brown, carefully using a specific and emotionally neutral sense of the word (“to be remarked upon”) and so not being dishonest, while allowing or indeed anticipating that it be interpreted as a compliment according to another normal usage. But there is another post about TB…

  24. 24  DF  September 27, 2006, 7:18 pm 

    “And it is just factually correct that Blair is “the most successful ever Labour leader and Labour Prime Minister”, in terms of numbers of elections won.”

    Is it? Blair won three. Wilson won four.

  25. 25  DF  September 27, 2006, 7:31 pm 

    However, I rather doubt that was point Mrs B was making.

  26. 26  Steven  September 27, 2006, 8:52 pm 

    I was, as someone once said, wrong to give that impression. Thanks, Dylan Falsifiah.

  27. 27  Steven  October 27, 2006, 9:50 pm 

    A fun piece by David Runciman on just this: Liars, Hypocrites and Crybabies.

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