Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
By now, everyone surely knows about “alternative facts.” Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer gave numbers for the crowd size at his inauguration that differed drastically from those of the National Park Service and media. In an interview with Chuck Todd on Meet the Press, counselor to Trump Kellyanne Conway called the administration’s statements “alternative facts.”
The biggest problem here is that Conway called those statements “facts.” Todd pointed out that four of the five “facts” Spicer told were “just not true.” As he said, “Alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.”
It matters what we call things. It matters what words we use.
Words matter–that’s becoming a familiar topic for my blog, as some of you may recognize. It matters whether we call it “locker room talk” or “sexual assault.” It matters whether we call them “alt-right” or “white supremacists.” It even matters whether we say someone “passed” or “died” and whether the cause was a “crash” or an “accident.”
It matters whether we call them “alternative facts,” “falsehoods,” or just plain “lies.”
As I’ve explored in those other posts
“the words we use shape our perceptions and attitudes.”
If we come to accept statements contrary to documented facts as “alternatives” rather than wrong, then there’s nothing keeping anyone from asserting anything. In fact, Spicer argued yesterday that Trump can keep claiming with no substantiated evidence that millions of illegal votes were cast in the election, causing him to lose the popular vote, because it is his “long-standing belief.” The fact that there’s no evidence to support that claim—in fact, there is evidence to the contrary—matters not at all if “alternative facts” are justified by “belief.” We are indeed in a post-truth world.
We have the power to resist.
My words from discussing locker room talk, with no idea it would be relevant again so soon:
“The power of naming is that it’s not individual, but collective. One person can insist on framing it as “locker room talk,” but the framing succeeds only if others accept it. That’s the difference between naming and “spin.” Any publicist can attempt to spin a story, to reframe what happened in a different light. But naming comes from the culture that’s there, the beliefs and attitudes emerging from who we are and who we want to be, a framing already present among us.”
We the people have the power to refuse that naming, at least when it’s new. The news media have the power to help the culture resist not just by calling out those counter-factual statements but also by choosing their words carefully when they report. The New York Times analyst Dan Barry explained the New York Times decision to call the current administration’s statements about illegal voting--and other demonstrably false repeated statements--“lies,” not soften them as “falsehoods” or "untruths" because 'Words matter." To call them “lies” is to assert intent behind those falsehoods, stating falsehoods as truths with full knowledge that they are false. Are these “alternative facts” just non-factual “falsehoods,” as Todd more gently named them? Or are these “alternative facts” better called knowing and deliberate “lies”? The media are making those decisions now, so now is a critical time in the collective’s ability to resist.
The news media have long carried the role of watchdog, a clichéd name that presents the media as protectors of the people, barking and attacking when dangers threaten us. The current administration is trying to shift that perspective by shifting words. White House strategist and senior counselor Stephen Bannon this past week labeled the media as “the opposition party.”
“You’re the opposition party. Not the Democratic Party. You’re the opposition party. The media’s the opposition party.”
Notice the repetition, and not just of “opposition” but “opposition party”—you are the opposition party, the media is the opposition party, you are the opposition party. Say it long enough and maybe it will stick. To reframe the news media from “watchdog” to “opposition party” is to shift their role as protector of the people to protector of political interests.
It’s no coincidence that Amazon sold out of paper versions of 1984, George Orwell’s classic 1949 novel about life under a totalitarian regime. To control the people and remove their trust in their own perceptions of reality, the regime controls the language, using “Newspeak” to redefine “alternative facts.”
“War is peace.
We are well past the year 1984 but not past the danger of Newspeak. Turning one powerful person’s beliefs into “alternative facts,” with anyone who says differently being the “opposition party,” threatens to make us question our own perception of reality and to question the reliability of our news sources.
We are not there yet. Individuals are renaming reality, but the collective has not yet accepted it. Words and meanings are sneaky, though. They infiltrate the collective consciousness and reshape our thinking unawares—unless we resist that lack of awareness.
Each of us can help resist. Challenge the media to be blunt and direct, and support the news outlets that in that way risk the administration’s punishments. And watch your own words, on social media, in classrooms, in conversations with friends. Stay alert to euphemisms, and call a lie a lie. “Alternative facts” is so outrageous a renaming that Todd jumped on it immediately. Bannon was far from subtle in pounding at the media as “opposition party.” But other attempts at renaming will be subtler and more insidious.
When pronouns define a “we” that excludes large numbers of people* and a “them” that now seems to include you, beware.
When well-established scientific evidence becomes part of a “debate” with “two sides,” beware.
When the powers-that-be use the word “Islam” repeatedly and only in the label “radical Islamic terrorists,” beware.
Now is the time, as it is happening and we can still recognize it. Don’t let powerful individuals usurp the power of naming. Assert our collective power to resist. Insist that our collective culture is not post-truth but knows the difference between fact and belief. Insist that we all, without excluding anyone, must watch what we say. Because we know these alternative truths--
Resistance is not futile.
*(As, to be fair, my own use of “we” in this column assumes an audience of people who privilege evidence over belief. Reread this post; notice and question the meaning of my “we” and “them.”)