Tomatoes are Blue
Hello, fellow Curmudgeons.
Well, it's come to this. For decades, I've been saying that accuracy in language is worthy of our attention. I keep saying that if we fail to tend to the rapidly growing weeds in this particular garden, our fundamental ability to communicate will suffer. And my friends smirk tolerantly. It's "my thing." I'm a "word nerd," a "stickler," "picky."
A generation of invented entitlement to unprecedented levels of individual interpretation has led to conditions that are hard to fathom even as they happen; we're now vehemently disagreeing on the meanings of basic words like "fact," "opinion," "true," "fake," and "proven," and even on the question of whether these things matter. Think about that: we're questioning whether it matters what's true. And that is a philosophical monstrosity that could devour an entire society. I've always said the day would come when someone could point to a ripe red tomato and call its color blue, telling the person who insists it's red, "Well, that's your opinion." Because "blue" would be his word for the color red. I often enjoy being right. But not about this.
And while I typically leave political observations to the many, many, many other bloggers, tweeters, posters, writers, and ranters, I will say this: the biggest current beneficiaries of this generation's passionately defended linguistic laissez-faire laziness is a group that often advances its nefarious causes by misusing phrases, misappropriating terms, and gutting words of their meanings. Here's a recent opinion piece from the "failing" New York Times.
Opinion The New York Times, June 22, 2018
Trickle-Down Trumpsters and the Debasement of Language
By Timothy Egan, Contributing Opinion Writer
Mike Leach, head football coach at Washington State University, tweeted out a video that was doctored to make Barack Obama sound like
a one-world-government tyrant. In response to criticism, he wrote, “What is a fact?” (Photo credit: Rajah Bose for The New York Times)
On Father’s Day last week, the highest-paid employee of Washington State University tweeted out a video of a 2014 speech by Barack Obama that was altered to make him sound like a one-world-government tyrant.
When called on the fraud, Mike Leach, the head football coach and $3.5-million-a-year representative of the same school that gave us the legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow, said, “Prove it.”
It was easily proven as doctored. But instead of apologizing, and owning up to his dissemination of a fake conspiracy video, he then wrote, “What is a fact?” Of all the things President Trump has done to destroy civil norms, his debasement of language is the most chilling and poisonous. For it has now reached down to every level, allowing people who are supposed to be societal pillars, or even role models, to act as if reality has no foundation.
Trump’s frightful legacy is not just the epidemic of everyday incivility in daily life. Nor is it his practice of using dehumanizing language to justify cruelty. The worst of the trickle-down Trump effects is the way he’s opened the door for other public figures to get away with making things up. When a president is applauded for lying, why should a head football coach, or a cabinet secretary, feel any shame for doing the same thing?
To authoritarians, language is a weapon, usually deployed in the service of an emotional half-truth: something you believe to be true even if it isn’t. Truth has to become meaningless — “What is a fact?” — in order for this strategy to work and morality to become a shapeless thing.
We saw it when Vice President Mike Pence called the former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio a champion of “the rule of law.” Arpaio is a convicted criminal later pardoned by Trump. You can say he’s a hero to the political right, or a fighter, but by no standard is a sheriff who was repeatedly called out for violating the law a champion of the rule of law.
And we saw it in graphic detail over the last week with the Trump administration policy of ripping migrant children from their parents. The cages holding weeping kids are “essentially summer camps,” in the words of the Fox News host Laura Ingraham.
Worse, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said the administration’s zero-tolerance policy that led to 2300 children being taken from their parents didn’t exist — “period.” A day after saying this, she defended the policy that doesn’t exist. And on Wednesday, Trump signed an order trying to resolve a crisis that he created, after saying earlier that he couldn’t stop it because it was the fault of others, even if it did exist.
After a while, people come to “believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true,” wrote Hannah Arendt, the German-born philosopher, in describing how truth lost its way in her native land.
Everyone laughed when the North Korean news agency reported that the late Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, scored five holes-in-one while playing a round of golf. But how is this any different from Trump saying this week that crime is “way up” in Germany when it just recorded the lowest year for crime in nearly three decades? Who is left to call him on this? The press, which he’s labeled the “enemy of the American people”? In North Korea, the masses are forced to believe the lies, something Trump clearly envies. “He speaks and his people sit up in attention,” Trump said of Kim Jong-un. “I want my people to do the same.”
The constant repetition of the lie is the way to make truth meaningless. You say a falsehood over and over and it takes on the shape of reality. This is the case for many of the 3200 lies or misleading claims that Trump has uttered since taking office.
My larger concern today is this: How is a fact-based democracy supposed to function when the Trump toxins have gotten deep into the national bloodstream?
When Mike Leach was caught in his video lie, his university did not set the record straight. Washington State issued a meaningless statement backing its coach’s right to his “personal opinions.” And Leach himself said the actual words spoken by Obama are “irrelevant anyway” because “we are discussing ideas.” All of this from an institution of higher learning.
And where did Coach Leach get this mush, an excuse that would be laughed off the field if one of his players tried it with him?
From the top. Remember when Trump retweeted a video purporting to show a Muslim migrant beating up a Dutch boy on crutches? After authorities in the Netherlands said the assailant was neither migrant nor Muslim, the White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the truth didn’t matter.
“Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real,” she said. In other words, “What is a fact?”
If this upsets you, the Curmudgeon knows a terribly clever way to fight back. Start using your words meticulously. Avoid exaggeration, hyperbole, and logical fallacies. Reject false narratives and false equivalencies even if they seem to benefit your side of the debate. Honor the rules of punctuation. Look up spellings and especially definitions (I do both constantly while writing these pieces). Be a stickler for accuracy. And listen to your Curmudgeon. I'm trying to save the world here, one complaint at a time.