Intent, Social Responsibility, and Alternative Facts

The world has felt intensely awful this past week, and a sense of existential dread and foreboding has settled into my knees. And within that, the only real, concrete thing that I feel able to do is teach, and speak, and sometime to laugh at the absurdity of it all, and so here I am.

Kellyanne Conway handed a gift to the comedy and internet meme worlds when she suggested that the Trump administration’s statements about attendance rates at the inauguration should be seen not as lies or misrepresentations, but as “alternative facts”. The Orwellian subtext has so rapidly become text that it is destabilizing to even think about, and of course that is, at least to some extent, the point. But this conversation about Trump and his absolute disregard for truth is not a new one, and watching how we have gotten to this point feels illustrative to me.

This article from the good old days of 2015 gets at some major parts of this matter. The key point:

Donald Trump lied. And yet traditional news organizations can’t or won’t call him that in the name of “objectivity”—appearing to favor one party over another—even if one candidate is spreading a rumor that unfairly maligns an entire race.

Post-enlightenment Western cultures are enthralled with the ideal of “objectivity-as-truth”, and such objectivity requires the observer to stand outside the context of the observation itself in order to get an accurate view. Taking a position internal to the story – one that comments directly on the relationship between Trump’s statements and the actual world – would violate this tenet. “There are three sides to every story”, the adage goes, “your side, my side, and the truth”. This framing places “the truth” in an essentially unreachable place, neither yours nor mine, and validates the idea that wherever it is, it is outside of our rooted positions. The central crack in this nice ideal view of a world in which we have to agree to disagree and collectively navigate our way through inaccessible complexities of reality is that it fails to adequately account for cases in which one of the sides is actually equivalent to the truth.

Fast-forwarding towards ‘alternative facts’, there is discussion now about whether it is appropriate to call Donald Trump (or Conway, or Spicer, or any of nose-156596_960_720the others speaking for him) “a liar”. This NPR piece exemplifies the main principle behind even raising this question, which focuses on the concept of speaker intent as the central relevant point, before concluding that, because we cannot read Trump’s mind, we cannot conclusively declare him “a liar”.

This is, of course, to use the polite term (thanks M*A*S*H*) “grade A, 100% bull cookies”. But it’s both persuasive and pervasive because it ties in to some important common sense Western conceptions about how truth, knowledge, and intent work. While explaining the linguistic/anthropological theories behind these conceptions would take up far too much of your time (Ed.: which you should totally be spending calling your MP and demanding real action instead of reading this, unless of course you’ve done that already, in which case carry on), what I do want to point out is that there are many alternative understandings of the relationship between truth, responsibility, and intent.

The theme of “intent” and how it connects to a lie always makes me think of the way some of my Amazonian friends would use the Portuguese word for a lie (“mentira”) for situations in which the person was, to my mind, much more likely simply mistaken. If a person said, for example, that an event had happened three years ago rather than five, with no motivation to have me believe the former, I felt odd when it was categorized as a lie, but when I explained that fact, I was told it was the same thing. If the speaker didn’t really know the answer, they should’t give information as though they did. I have not had a chance to explore this idea in depth, but I have a hunch it may be connected to the fact that the Indigenous languages these Amazonians speak make use of what are called evidentials – basically, ways of grammatically encoding how you know the information communicated. If the information is hearsay, or if you are uncertain about it, you have to say so directly in your statements. The bare presentation of information without a sense of source and authority, then, appears the same, and functions socially as, a lie, in its insufficient verification of truth.

The question of “intent” re-emerges repeatedly in relation to accusations of racism or other forms of prejudice. A example of this emerged in a recent discussion I had on Twitter about how anti-hate speech laws work, in practice, in Canada (thanks to James Leask for so concisely getting at major issues). By locating the racism so firmly within the intention of speakers/actors, we create a huge loophole in which we can never call any statements racist, because that is a thing that is located in the unknowable, inaccessible ether of their consciousness. It’s because of this that anti-oppression advocates often emphasize the need to interpret speech in terms of its impacts – in other words, to see the existence of racism and assess racist speech as something whose meaning is interactionally produced. not a nebulous beliefs located in people’s minds.

The same thing applies, albeit in different ways, to truth and lies. As we teeter into a post-truth world, where lies proliferate without liars to speak them, I want to tune in to how that is happening, beyond the obvious Newspeak terminology produced by people like Conway. Instead of upholding these ideological notions about where truth is, and how difficult it is to access, we need to dig in to the roots of how a focus on individual intent and a continued belief in the value of detached observation create the conditions for “alternative facts” to become materially significant. Because the material significance, as this weekend has shown us, is huge.