No, Really: Rhetoric, Alt-facts, and the Nature of Reality


“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you perform atrocities.” –Voltaire

Like many of you, I am concerned by the plethora of lies — excuse me, “Alternative Facts” — being disseminated by this White House.  What is disconcerting are not the alt-facts themselves (though apparently size does matter) but the threat the use of the rhetoric of alternatives to objective truth poses to the existence of we call reality.

Reality is a social construct.  The post-modern world has taught us that there is no a priori reality which exists outside of our shared, lived experience.  Perception does not shaped reality; it is reality.  “But wait,” you say.  “I know this table is real because I can touch it.”  Yes, you can “touch” the table, but that does not make the table real, it makes the table tangible.  And, what you are “feeling” when you touch the table is the interpretation of you physically perceiving the table.

Language does not describe reality; it creates reality.  In any symbolic system, each signified is itself a signifier.  There is no ultimate signified, just more signifiers.  In other words, what we call “reality” is the constant interpretation and realignment of signifiers.  What keeps this process from devolving into pure solipsism is that almost all human minds operate in the same manner.  In this way, we have created (in a way not dissimilar to Jung’s collective unconscious) an unconscious cultural contract as to the meaning of the constant interplay of signifiers, this experience we call “reality.”

Yes, we can alter the nature of the contract and thus alter reality, but the process usually takes time and follows a rigorous pattern of exploration and discovery, as well as debate and upheaval.  New ideas and ways of perceiving our world have traditionally gone through a lengthy vetting process. This is the role of science and mathematics in society. The reality that the Earth was at the center of our solar system did not change overnight.  Until 1957, the reality of a man-made object leaving the Earth’s gravity did not exist.

What this administration is doing is circumventing the socially agreed upon vetting process by simply changing the rhetoric.  Arbitrarily reassigning signifiers is the linguistic equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.  We may be more comfortable and have a better view of the iceberg, but we are still sinking.  What does it matter if we call them lies, falsehoods, or alternative facts?  It matters a great deal.  What you call something is important: it brings the thing into existence.  Calling lies “alternative facts” brings into being the possibility of an alternative truth, an alternative “reality.”  If “reality” is simply a matter of choice, of choosing what you wish to believe or not, leaves you open to believing whatever someone else wants you to believe.

The danger in what seems to be a mere rhetorical exercise is not an Orwellian future but rather a Voltairean one.

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