Caveat Auditor (Hearer Beware)

Caveat Auditor (Hearer Beware)

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

To Abraham Lincoln is attributed the observation that you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time. This is the astute observation of a seasoned politician, who has learned this hard truth in his professional career.

This is what lifts the message of Jesus, and of the bible in general, out of the genre of folklore and even the reliability of verifiable experience onto another level of communication. Lincoln’s remark is a commentary on the vagaries of language. It is not always trustworthy, and the listener or reader must be careful (caveat auditor). On the other hand, it is a backhanded tribute to our way of communicating with one another. Eventually our linguistic communication will work out, likely after several setbacks. Our poor language can take a beating but somehow it survives so as to serve us adequately. It gets the job done.

So even though we can and do fool others, misleading people and feeding them false information, the “truth will out”, one way or the other, sooner or later. Some of us are misled all the time by those we uncritically trust, and we pay the penalty for this foolishness. We may have our favorites among the news media moguls, taking everything we hear from them without any misgivings. This loyalty may be more like bull-headedness than confidence about the truth. Most of us will be duped periodically, but thankfully only for a time, until we catch on, correct ourselves and move closer to the truth of things. At this point we resent our prior unconditional trust of the word of another, if it proves to be misplaced.

Eventually we come to learn that a less certain communicator, or one who carefully qualifies much of what he or she says, is, in the long run, the person we learn to trust, for imparting the most truth over the long haul. Above all, that person wins our esteem who admits that he or she misinformed us, and now attempts to set the record straight.

In this regard, the telling of jokes is a tricky use of language. A version of this is the use of fantastic language in a dramatic way, capable of convincing others, as in the 1938 CBS radio episode in which Orson Welles, acting the part of a legitimate newscaster, abruptly interrupted a broadcast to announce to a petrified public that earth was being invaded by Martians from outer space. This illustrated how to fool some of the people some of the time. For severe trauma was inflicted on some listeners from that unexpected interjection of a terrifying piece of news into a broadcast.

Especially with young children, care must be taken in the use of language, especially jokes. Children tend to trust adults, especially strangers whom they don’t know, and they can be seriously traumatized by misplacing their trust in a thoughtless communication to them. A person who is always joking or “pulling pranks” has difficulty gaining credibility when it is needed, an example of which is the often cited warning about exclaiming FIRE, FIRE too frequently in crowded places like a theater, so that, when the remark is to the point, it is tragically not taken seriously. This is one of those times when all of the people (in the theater) must not be fooled.

Distorted remarks in widely circulating publications like ROLLING STONES, with its recent account of rape on a university campus, based on a purported instance provided by one person, while eventually discredited, at least in part, nonetheless caused unwarranted injury to those concerned, as well as to the publication itself: an instance of some of the people being fooled some of the time.

In this season of the year it is consoling to recall the teaching of faith, that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Human language was assumed by the Word of God and rose to the level of God-language. Thereby it has been enriched as a mother-lode of impeccable worth. In these matters of faith, we are assured not only that not all believers are not fooled all of the time, but, even more, that all believers are never fooled any of the time. A believer can hear and speak the language of faith in a trusting manner, and need not rest content with knowing that it is impossible to fool all the people all of the time. Consoling as that may be, it is not as comforting as to know that a believer can never be fooled any of the time, when it is a matter of a truth of faith.


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