- A lie.
- A lie expressed for political expediency.
- A lie about a lie.
This phrase is awesome (I don’t mean that in a positive, upbeat kinda way) for its abject insidiousness. It is awesome because the very phrase “alternative facts” is a perfect example of what it embodies. If you call something out as being a lie, falsehood or untruth, you are making a statement of fact. If you call something an alternative fact, you are engaging in a lie about a lie. It is pure, self-perpetuating genius.
Just to drive home why this whole alternative facts thing is an exercise in evil, this phrase is now inextricably wound up in connotations of lying for political expediency. Let’s look at the events that rocketed this phrase to notoriety.
- White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer lied (made false/inaccurate/misleading statements, whatevs, you split the hairs) about attendance numbers at Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration.
- When challenged about this at a press conference, Trump’s campaign strategist Kellyanne Conway characterised these statements as “alternative facts”.
What is striking about this incident is that the alternative facts were not tendered for any meaningful reason. I’m sorry to be so crass, but this really was just a one-sided political pissing contest, a mine-is-bigger-than-yours schoolyard tossing competition. The implications it has respecting this administration’s capacity for being up front and honest with the American people and the rest of the world on any issues of actual import are freaking huge.
The other consequence of Conway making out like alternative facts are an actual Thing, is the broader effect it has on the culture of political discourse in the US.
This from the Wikipedia page on alternative facts, about the discussion of Conway’s use of the term and the criticism she subsequently received for it:
The magazine [American Thinker] asserted that the phrase “alternative facts” was in common use in law and that it was known to most lawyers, including Conway, with her George Washington University Law School degree. After giving examples of non-legal uses of the phrase “alternative facts”, the article contended that when Chuck Todd upbraided Kellyanne Conway with the claim that “alternative facts are not facts; they’re falsehoods”, he was not only wrong, but “propagating an ignorance born out of lazy and shallow thinking”.
Wait, what? So a journalist challenging a government spokesperson on what was a pretty blatant and easily provable falsehood was somehow “propagating an ignorance born out of lazy and shallow thinking”? WTAF?
I mean, whoah. Now we are talking a lie defended by a lie defended by a lie. It’s like a whole recursive onion-thing, where each layer is just wrapped in a new, bigger, thicker, stickier, more repulsive layer of lies. This is orders of magnitude above mere political spin.
And you know what? That onion thing is a comprehensively documented consequence of lying: that you have to keep lying to perpetuate the original lie. That’s what makes phrases like alternative facts such powerful, dangerous things. They are just the start of a self-perpetuating process that has the capacity to do incalculable harm.
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