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Verbal energy: Ethics and the vocabulary of judgment

From the sandbox, a useful metaphor for decisionmaking.

The vocabulary of hypocrisy and ethical lapses has been much on my mind the past few weeks, because, well – you can figure out why. Suffice it to say I've been following the news a little more closely of late than usual.

And now my congressman reports in his weekly e-mail on his efforts to help launch something called the Office of Congressional Ethics. You mean there hasn't been one all along?

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Oh, my. So many scandals, so little time.

One of the discoveries from the dictionary research I've been doing here has been that the words hypocrisy and crisis are related.

Crisis came into English from Greek around 1425 to refer to the turning point of a disease. A couple of centuries later, the word had been extended to a broader meaning. The underlying metaphor of hypocrisy is of an actor on stage, pretending to be what he wasn't. Over the centuries, both politicians and preachers have been nervous around actors, evidently for fear of being confused with them.

Both words, and several others such as critic and criterion, are related to the idea of judgment, of separating this from that, of time revealing truth.

I remember my dad once at the family dinner table or some similar forum making an argument for hypocrisy – no, that sounds terrible. What he meant to do was to draw a distinction between those who genuinely strive to live up to a cherished moral standard and fall short, on one hand, and those who hypocritically claim a standard that they have never really embraced at all.

Too often, Dad suggested, the former are lumped in with the latter, and the only ones who escape criticism are those who hold to no particular standard at all. I think this conversation might have occurred during the Age of Aquarius, or the Summer of Love, or whatever it was.

It's interesting how many of our words for wisdom and judgment are not rooted in the idea of a head full of facts but refer to a capacity for making distinctions, for choosing wisely and correctly between alternatives, for choosing one path over another.

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Intelligence refers literally to "choosing between" options. Discretion refers to "discernment, the power to make distinctions." To discern is etymologically to distinguish, to separate, to sift. And throughout all these words, there's the idea that sifting will reveal what someone needs to know.

Hmm, I thought. Isn't there a memorable Bible passage that turns on "sifting"? Indeed, yes. It wasn't hard to find, and it's rather apt for Eastertime.

On the night of his betrayal, Jesus tells his disciple Simon Peter, "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not."

What exactly did he mean? A little further research quickly showed that yes, the ordinary sifting I first knew in the sandbox is the metaphor here. The same image appears a couple of times in the Old Testament, too, where "sift" is a translation from the Hebrew rather than the Greek of the Gospel.

Why "sifting" as a metaphor? Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase of the Bible, "The Message," resorts to the metaphor, familiar from elsewhere in the Bible, of sifting the chaff from the wheat.

But an earlier commentator, J.R. Dummelow, refers to the "violence" of sifting. For the grain, it's a process of getting knocked about; character building, perhaps, but bruising, too.

And yet from the perspective of someone trying to come to a decision, sifting is a natural metaphor. I can still see in my mind's eye the red-orange plastic sieve with which I learned to sift in the sandbox.

One shakes the sieve, and rather gently at that, and the sand falls away and reveals the rocks or whatever one is looking for. One needn't make a decision. One merely has to wait for it to become visible.