I've been thinking through the ethics of deceit with respect to April Fools jokes and other kinds of false statements that may or may not be considered lying. The Jill Carroll case has raised an important further sort of case that I hadn't been thinking about. What about when someone says something they don't believe to be true under duress? For background on the details of her case and her deliberate statements (under threat) of things she didn't agree with, see the Moderate Voice's excellent roundup. There seem to me to be at least three issues that may have a moral bearing on how we should evaluate such false statements, and I think the end result is much more messy than we would generally like moral issues to be.
1. This was under duress. If someone unloads a cash register to a thug holding a gun, we don't blame the person for giving away the store's cash. Why should we do so if someone lies under duress?
The one hesitation I have about this is that I don't think Christians should reject Christ under duress. Some things are too important to say false things about even under coercion. But if that's right, then duress isn't always an excuse. I suppose it depends on how serious the false statement is. I think people could reasonably disagree on where the threshold will be set between somethings being too serious and something's being not serious enough to merit participation.
2. People would have understood that she didn't mean it as reflecting her own views.
I accept this line of thought with respect to actors who say things that they don't really believe when they're pretending to be someone else, because there is a real social convention to treat actors' words that way. In this case, it's not so clear. Clearly some people are recognizing that she didn't mean what she said, but just look at enough right-wing blogs, and you'll find some people who didn't understand that her saying this under duress means she probably doesn't believe it. They're treating this as her chance to get out liberal propaganda under the guise of plausible deniability, and some have even suggested that she had this plan with them all along to undermine the efforts of the coalition in Iraq. So it isn't clear that people will just understand that this is under duress and doesn't represent her views. Of course, maybe these people are the ones at fault for not giving her the benefit of the doubt, but maybe it's widespread enough to undermine reason 2 to some degree.
This issue reminds me of the claims of some recent biblical scholars that some books attributed to certain authors were not written by those authors but by someone taking their names as pseudonyms. They then defend the authority and integrity of scripture by saying the original audience would have understood that Ephesians wasn't written by Paul or that II Peter wasn't written by Peter. These are evangelicals with a high view of scripture who say these things, and I wonder about it for two reasons. One is that I'm not at all sure it could have been obvious even to people in that time that this is what was going on, because it really seems to present itself as the work of Paul or Peter, with no indications in the text itself that it isn't. The same is true of Jill Carroll's material. But the more difficult problem is that these texts were intended for more than just the original audience. Ephesians and Peter's letters seem to have been intended as circular letters, and that means the author or original distributors knew full well that there would be audiences not in the loop. Once I've said all this, I have to worry about some of the same issues with Carroll's coerced propaganda statements.
3. We're not in this situation, and we have no right to say anything confidently about what someone else should do in a situation we haven't tested our convictions in.
Moral deference is a strong consideration with these extreme cases that most of us have never been in. If I don't know what it is to be in a situation that could be incredibly difficult, then I don't know what I would do, and I need to extend some grace to those who would do things that might otherwise be considered wrong. That doesn't mean it's not wrong, but I should hesitate to affirm both that it is wrong and that I wouldn't do it. If I'm going to worry about its possibly being wrong, then I should admit that I might also do the wrong thing in that situation.
Some people have expressed views that amount to calling her a wimp, but I think someone can think someone in such circumstances has a very high moral standard to meet that takes extreme courage to follow. Those who don't aren't wimps. They're just not as courageous as we would ideally want them to be, and thus they did something that, technically speaking, is wrong. But this is consistent with thinking most of us are likely that and would do the wrong thing. It's consistent with thinking that it doesn't take a wimp to do the easier thing here. It just takes a normal person, someone who isn't of the very highest moral caliber. So if it's wrong to participate in this kind of propaganda (and remember that I'm just offering moral considerations here and not trying to take any view), then it's wrong in a way that doesn't justify calling someone a wimp for failing to meet such a very high standard. Most of us might fail in this sort of case, and not being of the highest courage isn't the same as being a wimp. A wimp would fold under much less pressure, and we don't have any reason to think Jill Carroll would do that. So I think the moral deference argument serves as some defense against the wimp charge, even if you think what she did was wrong.