Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Wednesday Wordage Inaccurate Edition

Wednesday Wordage Inaccurate Edition

Twice today, I heard a radio personality stumble around what to call some of the declarations from our president-elect.  In both cases, they settled on "inaccurate statements."  I was a bit perturbed, because the term "inaccurate statement" is itself not accurate to describe most of the statements from Donald Trump.  "The check is in the mail" is an inaccurate statement.  Talk of two million fraudulent votes is something else.

It has been depressing watching the media and others grapple with this phenomenon: a very public person who rouses the rabble with statements that seem to have no relation with reality, with crude fictions appealing to the baser sentiments of humanity.  No one wants to call a public figure a liar, and the media avoided describing Trump's statements as lies, despite the word being appropriate.  But there is an even more accurate word that could have been used--one given precise meaning and focus in a well-known essay by the American philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt.


A lie, to Frankfurt, requires a certain regard for the truth.  The liar thinks enough of the truth, and his or her audience, that care is given to the lie, its plausibility, and the deception it should convey.  "The check is in the mail" is a lie--it acknowledges the truth that a check should be in the mail, and that the listener wants there to be a check in the mail, and that speaker ought to have put a check in the mail; it is fully in contact with reality, it's just false, and what's more, falsifiable.  Bullshit, on the other hand, has no contact with the reality.  It shows pure, sneering contempt for both the truth and for the audience.  The bullshitter says that it's going to start raining checks in the mail, and that mail is totally unreliable, and there's a conspiracy among those people to systematically steal things from the mail.

So, here is my plea (and I am not without hope that the press will develop a spine; the AP style manual has decided that any mention of the "alt-right" needs to indicate that it is a white nationalist movement.  They should just say that they're nazis, but, baby steps).  The next time our president-elect says something about two million fraudulent votes or Russian troops not being in the Ukraine or that anthropogenic climate change is a Chinese conspiracy, call it what it is.  Bullshit.  Okay, you can't say that on the radio, so maybe "bull[beep]"...but call it out for what it is.  And as important, ask every one of Trump's enablers, yes or no, if they endorse the bullshit, and just how that bullshit tastes in their mouths.

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