Renault:  And what in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?

Rick:       My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.

Renault:  Waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.

Rick:       I was misinformed.

                                                                   —Casablanca, 1942

Whoever speaks the truth gives honest evidence, but a false witness speaks deceitfully. Rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment. Deceit is in the mind of those who plan evil, but those who counsel peace have joy (Proverbs 12:17-20).


Earlier this month I came out of the Sanderson Center, the large recreational facility at MSU, and was confronted in the parking lot by a couple of young women in a golf cart who had stopped their vehicle in back on my SUV so that I couldn’t leave. “Do you have a parking pass?” the driver asked. I told her I didn’t know I had to have one, since I never did before, and no one had told me otherwise. And what’s more, the whole requirement that I had to have a pass to come work out twice a week was outrageous. None of that mattered to her; I guess she was of the “ignorance of the law is no excuse” mindset. I had to have a parking permit if I came over at least twice a week or five times a year. I knew where to get one, so the only question was how much it would cost me. “I don’t know,” she said, “but I think they’re about $100 a year.”

You can imagine that I was none too happy to hear that. I fumed most of the way back home, then got on the phone as soon as I could to the Sanderson Center membership office, to which I had already paid over $100 for a semester’s worth of visits. I happened to talk to the young man who sold me my renewal, and he confirmed that indeed I had to have a pass. When I confronted him with his failure to tell me that in the first place, he was apologetic, then let me know that the passes were only $1.00 a month. I subsequently got in touch with Parking Services, found out the guy was right, and bought a pass. Problem solved.

The whole incident and sequence of events got me thinking about how important it is to have and give accurate information. The girl in the parking cart could have and should have been briefed on what had to be a FAQ. I would have been OK with her ignorance if she had simply said “I don’t know, but Parking Services will be happy to help you.” Instead she bluffed and gave me misinformation, which brought me distress at the thought of having to spend more money.

How much customer anger, confusion, and lost business could be avoided if the people answering the phone or responding to email inquiries committed either to having ready-at-hand accurate, up-to-date information or else finding out the facts before answering a question? How much teenage fear and foolishness could be avoided if young women and men only had the facts about everything from acne to drugs to puberty to sexuality? How often could church conflicts be cooled if all sides at least agreed to a common set of facts about some hot button issue? How many reputations could have been saved if someone had refused to repeat gossip?

Of course, sometimes people intentionally spread disinformation and misinformation to promote their agendas. Pundits and bloggers do it all the time these days to fan the flames of distrust and suspicion in our society. The lies spread virally over the Internet and pretty soon, the truth is silenced. That’s not just irresponsible; it’s wrong and unethical. It’s bearing false witness. The sad thing is that it is sometimes those who shout loudly about their faith and make a show of it that are the worst offenders.

Giving a wrong answer to someone unintentionally out of ignorance isn’t sinful. But such action can nevertheless have consequences, even hurtful ones, made all the worse when the error is compounded as it is repeated over and over in conversations far removed from the original. So all of us need to make sure we commit to best practices like checking our facts with reliable sources, being cautious when we speak about subjects with which we are unfamiliar, and being willing to admit we don’t know.

As the old saying goes, it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.

© 2009 Tom Cheatham