The Betrayal of Language and Our Common Faith

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – – that’s all.”

– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

White House spokesperson Kellyanne Conway responded to NBC’s Chuck Todd scornfully when he challenged the falsehoods from the White House Press Director and the White House itself the day before. Don’t be so dramatic, Trump’s spokesperson said dismissively.

She had claimed that the stream of falsehoods about inauguration day crowds and other matters were “alternative facts.” That drove Todd up a wall. There are no “alternative facts,” he responded with some heat. “They’re falsehoods!”.

Conway dismissed him with a smirk.

The exchange recalled an election event in which some outright lies from the Trump campaign about illegal voting were called out and a spokesperson explained that they weren’t lies because Trump’s followers believed them. When people believe something, he claimed, it becomes their “truth.”

According to the current regime, truth is not a function of meaning, and reality, and facts. It’s whatever they say it is. Their confidence in this cynical game is audacious, strategic, and dangerous.

From Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland movie:

  “I’m not crazy,” said the Cheshire Cat. “My reality is just different than yours.”

Trump and his regime have taken the country right through the looking-glass, all right, into a mirror world. It’s like looking into a fun house mirror: we can vaguely recognize reflections, but they’re twisted into curves and bends and weird faces.

All this would be the stuff of satire if it weren’t so deadly serious. For me it is a source of pain and anger.

I have spent my entire working life advocating for truth, the complex truths that give the lie to simplistic slogans and “spin.” I taught English literature and writing at the University of Illinois – Chicago for five years. One course taught logic and and how to research and document factual papers. Students leaned the difference between quoting, and summarizing, and paraphrasing. They learned how to distinguish truth from assertions.

Then I spent twenty years preparing for and working in the professional Episcopal ministry, teaching and preaching and counseling. And I have now been an author and professional speaker for 23 years, writing fiction and non-fiction books and delivering speeches about the impacts of technologies, security issues, and the intelligence community and the national security state. In all of that work, I have always tried to get my mind around the most complex truths that I could, respecting the ambiguity of real life, listening to different points of view from hundreds of colleagues, in order to articulate the most truth I could. I endeavored to be faithful to my real experience and the real experience of the people who taught me along the way. That commitment to the search for truth became an exercise in genuine spirituality, a commitment to empowering and supporting all of us in becoming the best people we could.

Do we really need to say that words have meaning and don’t mean whatever we say they mean? That “alternative facts” are not facts at all, but lies? That language is a common faith in a shared understanding of the real world and to betray that faith is dangerous and abhorrent? Do we need to say that the current assault on truth, on facts, on reality itself is an assault on the very fabric of the body politic, on behalf of an autocratic, mind-bending, chaotic approach to power and public life? Do we really need to say that creating chaos and confusion might secure power for an autocrat but betrays and whipsaws the people he allegedly serves? Do we need to say that this is ominous, dangerous, and a genuine threat to our way of life?

I think we do. In the face of serial intentional lies, rabid distortions, then more lies, accompanied by sneers and derision and rants, then more lies in tweets by a leader who then denies the existence of his own tweets or videos showing him saying what reports document that he said, which he subsequently denied, videos that reveal his contradictions which we have seen and heard with our own eyes and ears? Denials which he uses as opportunities to vilify, insult and attack people – such as the press – whose job is to point all this out? Yes we do, oh yes we do, we do need to advocate for truthfulness itself, for the fact of facts, for the scientific method when it applies, for integrity, for words having meaning, and we do need to call repugnant the alternative–an authoritarian, autocratic, dismissive contempt for common sense and what we know.

This is not about just politics anymore, or shouldn’t be. I am sometimes conservative, sometimes liberal on issues, remembering what “conservative” and “liberal” once meant. This is not a partisan issue. This is about an assault on the bonds of our common humanity and how we speak to one another in good faith in order to find real solutions to real problems. This is about democracy and how it works best. This is about rejecting a narcissistic pathology that plays to feelings of victimization and dispossession with emotional appeals, a denial of reason and logic, and a callous exploitation of real needs at the expense of dealing with pressing issues in a complex world.

Will facts and passion for the truth be enough to withstand this vicious assault? We don’t know. We honestly don’t know. Around the world, regimes built on lies and raw power abound. That can happen here–obviously. But we do know, if we allow this travesty to become the “new normal,” we will lose what is not only valuable but essential to our common life as a free people.

Richard Thieme is an author and professional speaker currently based in Milwaukee. He has published four books in the past six years and his clients have included Microsoft, Medtronic, GE Healthcare, and Synapse/the Center for the Advancement of Intelligent Systems, as well as the NSA, FBI, Secret Service, U.S. Department of the Treasury, and Los Alamos National Lab.