Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Safe Words


I recently re-read Harry Turtledove's How Few Remain, an alternate U.S. history which posits, among other things, the Confederate States having won the Civil War (which they nearly did in reality), and George Armstrong Custer enjoying a much longer and more successful career than he actually did.

On page 244, Colonel Custer is searching the home of a suspected polygamist in Utah in 1881. Despite the denials of several of the women there, he has found a family picture of the man with all his wives and children together:

"I say that this photograph shows me you have been imperfectly truthful here," he told them, having been too well brought up to call a woman a liar to her face.

That's puzzled me for a little while now. Let's put aside the question of why it's so bad to tell a woman who has lied to you, that you know she has lied.

What could Custer have meant by "imperfectly truthful" if not that the women's pleas that they were not the suspect's wives were untrue? If everyone there, including the women, was expected to understand that Custer now knew that they had, well, lied, just why is "imperfectly truthful" so much better than "lying" when everyone knows that they mean the exact same thing?

What do you think?

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