Why disingenuous instead of liar?
February 6, 2006 7:33 AM   Subscribe

What is the difference between using the word disingenuous and lying, especially in a political context?

It always seems as if opposition speakers try to stay away from the word(s) lying, liar, ect... as if they were the plague and instead use the word disingeuous as a type of code. Meanwhile I am yelling at the TV saying that they were lying.

Why the great care in staying away from the L word?

From www.dictionary.com
dis·in·gen·u·ous Pronunciation Key (dsn-jny-s)

1. Not straightforward or candid; insincere or calculating: “an ambitious, disingenuous, philistine, and hypocritical operator, who... exemplified... the most disagreeable traits of his time” (David Cannadine).
2. Pretending to be unaware or unsophisticated; faux-naïf.
3. Usage Problem. Unaware or uninformed; naive.


1. A false statement deliberately presented as being true; a falsehood.
2. Something meant to deceive or give a wrong impression.

v. lied, ly·ing, (lng) lies
v. intr.

1. To present false information with the intention of deceiving.
2. To convey a false image or impression: Appearances often lie.
posted by MrMulan to Society & Culture (23 answers total)
I believe that being disingenuous is "leaving out the truth", while lying is "making up a false one"...

Being disingenous, in my interpretation, is basically doing everything you can to not make up a fake truth, but to not give out the real one, either... perhaps to even try and divert questions from getting at the real truth..
posted by twiggy at 7:36 AM on February 6, 2006

I think people staying away from the L-word is a derives from the traditional parliamentary culture started in Westminster, where it remains absolutely taboo to accuse your fellow "Right Honourable Gentleman" of being ungentlemanly. For instance, a committee recently found the Transport Secretary innocent of lying to Parliament, while simultaneously ordering him to apologise for "telling an untruth".
posted by Protocols of the Elders of Awesome at 7:43 AM on February 6, 2006

What's the difference? Diplomacy.
posted by equipoise at 7:46 AM on February 6, 2006

@PotEoA - similar to the story about Winston Churchill coining the phrase "terminological inexactitude" when referring to something that was actually a lie.

See here for a few other words that politicians can't say in Parliament; perhaps this behaviour has spread to outside Parliament.

Perhaps also it's a way to defend against being sued for saying something that may be deemed to be too forceful, hurtful or - Heaven forbid - accurate!
posted by Chunder at 7:49 AM on February 6, 2006

Moreover accusing someone of being a liar is, without proof, defamation. Accusing someone of being disingenous is less likely to be.
posted by prentiz at 7:52 AM on February 6, 2006

Plus, disingenuous has more syllables. It's smarter.
posted by selfmedicating at 8:08 AM on February 6, 2006

I think of lying to be more about the statement and disingenuous more about the attitude/purpose/intention with which the statement is made.

Something disingenuous need not be a lie. For example, I could say that you should join my gym because it's a great gym and you've been saying you want to lose weight, and it's veyr conveniently located next to your office. Even if that's all true, it's still disingenuous if I would like you to join because they'll give me a $500.
posted by duck at 8:22 AM on February 6, 2006

I would say that a disingenuous statement may, on the surface, be true, but is consciously worded to mislead. For example, an overseas sweatshop owner, who shackles seven year old children to his sewing machines for 14 hours and pays them a pennies a day, might well say, "My only motivation is to provide a desperately needed income to the poorest in our community."

(on preview, pretty much what 'duck' says)
posted by namret at 8:36 AM on February 6, 2006

Response by poster: Duck: That sounds more like marketing

Namret: "My only motivation is to provide a desperately needed income to the poorest in our community."

That is a lie to me, the key word being only.

I know I can't read a person's mind or know their motivation but it seems so obvious.
posted by MrMulan at 9:01 AM on February 6, 2006

In politics, I think the semantic distinction between the words is much less important than cultural distinction.

Calling someone a liar is the equivalent of nuclear war.

Calling someone disingenuous (or any of a dozen other words) is like the low-level skirmishing of the Cold War.

Most people on the public stage have learned to avoid the collateral damage of nuclear war. They know if they call a politician a liar, that it will make a big fuss, and that that politician will probably come back after them. And, being a politician, the accusee will soon be the accused, as pretty much all politicians say something at one time or another that is a lie.

What's interesting to me is that this behavior now extends beyond politicians to journalists. Even when someone is lying as plain as day, most journalists won't point that out.

At the end of the day, it all seems to be based on a polite fiction that lying is uncommon and very wrong -- the reality is that it is as common as rain, and most people aren't upset by the wrongness of it to stop doing it or supporting it.
posted by teece at 9:04 AM on February 6, 2006

When asked about Brokeback Mountain, a liar might say "I haven't seen it."
A disingenuous person might say, "I hadn't seen it."
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:11 AM on February 6, 2006

As I understand it, disingenuous means "falsely naive" -more of an attitude than the act of lying. Can't think of any good examples...
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 9:39 AM on February 6, 2006

Duck: That sounds more like marketing

Right. Most marketing is disingenuous. It pretends to have your best interest at heart, when in fact it doesn't.
posted by duck at 10:07 AM on February 6, 2006

Response by poster: Weapons-grade pandemonium: Thats a good one.

More examples, I think there a riot.

Liar: I served in Vietnam
Disingenuous: I wanted to serve in Vietnam
posted by MrMulan at 10:15 AM on February 6, 2006

Liar: I served in Vietnam
Disingenuous: I wanted to serve in Vietnam

I think those are both just lies. The second is a lie that's difficult to prove false, sure, but it's still a lie.
posted by duck at 10:25 AM on February 6, 2006

Lie: John Kerry was a straight A student at Yale, while George W. Bush practically flunked out.

Disingenuous: George W. Bush's C average at Yale is clear evidence that he is not as smart as John Kerry, who also went to Yale. (draws an unsupported, though accurate, inference from an incomplete and deceptive, though technically true, factual assertion)
posted by JekPorkins at 11:10 AM on February 6, 2006

Radio Host: and what is the best perk of being a CEO?

CEO: People. being able to deal with such special people.

in most cases, what he is thinking is The ability to fly to in a private jet with my dog in the cabin, smoking a cigar.

lie or disingenuous?
posted by Izzmeister at 11:23 AM on February 6, 2006

Lie: I'm not having an affair with another woman.
Disingenuous: I'm not sleeping with another woman. (at least, not right now, at this very moment...)
posted by LordSludge at 12:38 PM on February 6, 2006

True statements:
I momentarily wanted to serve in Vietnam one day but the feeling passed.

I wanted to serve in Vietnam after the war ended.

Disingenuous statement based the above:
I wanted to serve in Vietnam
posted by malp at 1:29 PM on February 6, 2006

I remember watching GWB be interviewed about his service in the Texas Air National Guard. I am not quoting exactly here, but I do remember that every one of his phrases fell along these lines:

"I don't think I was treated any differently than any other soldier"

"I don't remember receiving any special priviliges."

and so forth. They are not flat denials of anything, but rather rely on his own "subjective" evaluation of the situation, or could be covered easily by a convenient memory lapse.

And again, there may have been only one or two occasions where Cheney slipped up and blamed Saddam for 9/11, but he creates the impression of a causal connection by using metaphors, by mentioning Saddam and 9/11 in close proximity, and so on.

These two examples are disingenuous, and to me, they amount to lies. But, strictly speaking, neither is really lying.
posted by Maxwell_Smart at 5:12 PM on February 6, 2006

An essential reference relating to this question: On Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfurt.

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern. We have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, as Harry Frankfurt writes, "we have no theory."

Frankfurt, one of the world's most influential moral philosophers, attempts to build such a theory here. With his characteristic combination of philosophical acuity, psychological insight, and wry humor, Frankfurt proceeds by exploring how bullshit and the related concept of humbug are distinct from lying. He argues that bullshitters misrepresent themselves to their audience not as liars do, that is, by deliberately making false claims about what is true. In fact, bullshit need not be untrue at all.

Rather, bullshitters seek to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything at all is true.
They quietly change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant. Frankfurt concludes that although bullshit can take many innocent forms, excessive indulgence in it can eventually undermine the practitioner's capacity to tell the truth in a way that lying does not. Liars at least acknowledge that it matters what is true. By virtue of this, Frankfurt writes, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

I think this is the underpinning of the approach used by FOX News, particularly its practioners Hannity and O'Reilly, and more generally other cable news commentators including Matthews. It's endemic among politicians, as well, although it's always been more common in that realm so the change is not as noticeable.

I think we should all be concerned, though, when the man who served in Vietnam is widely perceived as a coward, and the men who ducked out of military service are presented as courageous. There's a much deeper effect at work here than mere lying.

We live, it seems, in the Age of Disingenuity.
posted by dhartung at 10:23 PM on February 6, 2006

I think there's a sort of gentlemen's agreement among politicians that they won't directly call each other liars, because as someone mentioned above, once someone lobs this nuke, it's open season on them - everything they've ever said that was recorded will be picked apart mercilessly and used against them, even if it has to be twisted out of (almost) all recognition in order to do so.

Since they all lie, they all have to buy into this system. And the media just sort of gives a wink and a nod to this behavior because hey, they get to be in on the lie, too - they're *insiders*! (woo!). And frankly if they were serious about being ethical professionals and they told us someone was lying, even providing incontrovertible proof of that fact wouldn't save them - they'd be cut off completely, and with no access, they're finished. Game over.

But the fawning and lie-tolerating nature of the obsequious sycophants who are lucky enough to be close to those in power is nothing new to humanity.
posted by beth at 7:14 AM on February 7, 2006

In U.S. government, there's actually a house of representatives and a senate rule prohibiting members from calling each other liars on the floor of the house and senate.
posted by JekPorkins at 9:51 AM on February 7, 2006

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