Regular readers of mine probably know my favorite quotation of Aristotle, his definition of truth by heart, but it’s time to cite it again:
To say that what is is not, or that what is not is, is false; but to say that what is is, and what is not is not, is true; and therefore also he who says that a thing is or is not will say either what is true or what is false.
Aristotle, Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vols.17, 18, Translated by Hugh Tredennick. (Medford, MA: Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1933, 1989).
What brings up this citation this time is my seeing a growing number of people on the internet willing to impute motives to people based on their own interpretation of the quoted words, without concern as to whether the author intends those interpretations or not. It’s an important thing to keep in mind. If we want to speak truthfully about a person, we must make sure that our interpretation of his or her words are what the author intends before we praise or criticize the author/speaker in question. If we don’t do this, then we speak falsely about the person and our criticism is either wrong or, if it’s right, it’s only right by coincidence.
This is especially a problem when personal preferences and beliefs color the meaning of words. For example, I have had to defend St. John Paul II when he used the word “feminism” from detractors who assumed he was using it in the sense of the American meaning of radical feminism. From this interpretation, his detractors accused him of being faithless to the Church. Or for a more recent example, millions of people still think that Pope Francis was endorsing “same sex marriage” on account of an out of context quote, “Who am I to judge.” (See HERE for context). Such people do not speak the truth when they claim/accuse the Pope of changing Church teaching.
Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft demonstrated why this is a problem in one of his Socratic dialogues he wrote (they’re all worth reading):
Socrates: I think you are confusing belief with interpretation.
Flatland: No, I'm just saying we have to interpret a book in light of our beliefs.
Socrates: And I'm saying we must not do that.
Flatland: Why not?
Socrates: If you wrote a book to tell other people what your beliefs were, and I read it and interpreted it in light of my beliefs, which were different from yours, would you be happy?
Flatland: If you disagreed with me? Why not? You're free to make up your own mind.
Socrates: No, I said interpreted the book in light of my beliefs. For instance, if you wrote a book against miracles and I believed in miracles, and I interpreted your book as a defense of miracles, would you be happy?
Flatland: Of course not. That's misinterpretation.
Socrates: Even if it were my honest belief?
Flatland: Oh, I see. We have to interpret a book in light of the author's beliefs, and criticize it in light of our own.
Socrates: Precisely. Otherwise we are imposing our views on another. And that is certainly not charitable, but arrogant.
Peter Kreeft. Socrates Meets Jesus: History's Greatest Questioner Confronts the Claims of Christ (Kindle Locations 749-755). Kindle Edition.
So if I interpret the meaning of something based on my personal beliefs, and not according to the intention the speaker/author had, then I miss the point. Moreover, if my criticism is based on this misinterpretation, I do injustice and quite possibly do moral wrong to the person I criticize. Speaking falsely can be a sin if we know it is false, or if we can research the statement and see the true content, but simply don’t bother to (vincible ignorance). But even in a case where the person who speaks falsely has no way of learning that his/her criticism is false (invincible ignorance), wrong is still done. Invincible ignorance simply means that the person has no way of finding out that they speak or act wrongly.
Nor can we hide our speaking rashly behind the excuse of “So-and-so needs to speak more clearly” (which is an excuse which is very popular among the detractors of Pope Francis). If you think a person speaks unclearly, then you have the obligation to act on that belief to be extra careful in avoiding misinterpretation and false accusation.
All of us have the moral obligation to speak truthfully. If we know we speak falsely when we speak against someone, then we outright lie. If we just assume that an accusation must be true without verifying that the speaker/writer intended to say what we accuse them of, then we are guilty of rash judgment.
This doesn’t apply only to other people committing rash judgment against Popes. It also applies to the people we dislike. A person can find Obama, Bush, Clinton, Trump, Nancy Pelosi, Wayne LaPierre (among others, I’m just culling the boogeymen most hated by Left and Right) to be offensive and supporting offensive policies. But that offense we take does not give us leave to spread whatever hostile interpretations we think sound good. We still have the same obligation to make sure that what we say is true and that we have made an accurate interpretation of our foes. In other words, even if the person that you oppose is a total bastard, that doesn’t give you the right to speak falsely against him or her.
I think this is especially important in an election year. Issues will be thrust forward, and candidates will take both sides. There will be attempts made to put the preferred idea in a positive light, and claim bad will for the opposed idea. We are not allowed to take part in misrepresentation, whether this misrepresentation tries to make an evil plan sound good or morally neutral, or to make a good or morally neutral idea seem evil. If we speak in favor of something or someone, we must do so honestly, and if we speak in opposition to some person or policy, we must be sure we accurately understand it first, and not distort it.
Otherwise we bear false witness and do wrong, whether we do so deliberately or through careless indifference.