“Alternate facts”: Latest language crime

Politicians commit various language abuses considered “BS.” “Alternate facts” is the latest.


You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.  (Daniel Patrick Moynihan)

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence. (attrib. James Madison)

Just the facts, ma’am.  (Jack Webb as Sgt. Joe Friday, Dragnet)

“Alternate facts.”

According to Google, “Alternative facts” was “a phrase used by U.S. Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway during a Meet the Press interview on January 22, 2017, in which she defended White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s false statement about the attendance numbers of Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States.”

Kellyanne did more than defend Spicer.  She inaugurated a new protocol for interpreting language, one that contains a condition that, if it actually were a language phenomenon, would make communication impossible.

Why was this abomination allowed to get off the launching pad?  Why didn’t more people who should know better attack and demolish this neologism and the sleazy language behavior that it labels?

Problem: new rules of meaning

As if “meaning,” the subject of thousands of books and articles, were not already hard enough to define, our very foundational notions of what it is to say that a cluster of (what we will conveniently call) words “means something” are being challenged and disturbingly upended.

Key competencies: Recognizing words/phrases that mean the same; recognizing consistency

Among our many linguistic competencies is the ability to tell when two strings of words mean the same thing – they convey the same information or intent, or they refer to the same thing(s) or process(es) in the real (or fictional) world.

Getting the meaning is important. In conversation, we have many occasions and verbal strategies for meaning determination and management, e.g., What do you mean? What’s that mean? Are you saying that…? and many others.

In one-way communication, there’s a lot of room for the linguistically slimy “alternate facts” because there’s no one to question them, much less the concept itself.  OK, sure, alternate facts…what’s the problem?  Isn’t this the age of post-modernism, when anything can mean anything?

No, it can’t

We’re used to being lied to.  Today, we’re better-equipped than ever to identify inconsistency, even blatant flip-flopping.  Since media can now capture every public word, there are a lot more opportunities to compare individual politicians’ pronouncements on the same subject.

Yet still they lie and obfuscate.

We expect — but rarely get – consistency in our political language. “Consistency,” in this context, is stating the same political position or goal in different words (i.e., paraphrasing it).  It also refers to (i) statements consistent with the position and (ii) the absence of said position in subsequent pronouncements (equivalent to nullifying it).

A consistent, disciplined politician stays on-message.  Today they don’t have to.  Campaign rhetoric is promises, threats, fear-mongering, and insults.  And dueling slogans.


Since I’m a Libertarian, I’ll use libertarian position statements as examples.

(i) The Federal government should be much smaller and less expensive.

(ii) We need a national government that costs less and does less.

These are loose paraphrases.  They say the same thing.  I would expect to hear these and many synonymous variations from a libertarian candidate.  I would also expect consistency; an inconsistent candidate would, at another point and in front of another audience, propose the opposite: generous new entitlements, new taxes, and more Cabinet departments (no libertarian would do that).

Recognizing paraphrase and inconsistency

The identification of both paraphrase and consistency requires high-level language-processing abilities.  I wonder if these skills are taught in schools. It’s better for the ruling class that the masses be kept linguistically ignorant.  Apparently the requisite skills are indeed lacking in many voters, or people wouldn’t accept the notion of “alternate facts.”   If someone says it on TV, they figure, it must be true.

Maybe they’re so used to being lied to by politicians (“Read my lips – no new taxes”, “If you like your doctor, you can keep him,” “We’ll build a wall and Mexico will pay for it,” “I’m for fracking/I’m against fracking,” etc.) that they pretend to believe the lies, because what else have they got?  These are the people running for office, and they regularly tell lies.

“Alternate facts”

So “alternate facts” isn’t such a leap, given the way people’s minds have been already been softened up.

But “alternate facts” is an oxymoron.  For otherwise (apparently) rational people to advance this notion is cynically, poisonously dishonest and for others to accept it is dangerously naïve.   There can be alternate interpretations, alternate inferences, alternate conclusions, even alternate memories or eyewitness accounts

And facts themselves can even be temporary.

I like to think of “facts” as the landings on a million staircases, each of which represents a line of human inquiry.  On some issues, the landing is the terminus: the earth is spherical and revolves around the sun, despite people being tortured and killed in the name of alternate facts.

But on a host of other staircases, “facts” represent temporary, consensual truth. The invisible microbes that spread infection weren’t “facts” to the 18th-century doctors who didn’t wash their hands.  We have so much more to learn, if we don’t wipe ourselves out first.

But where the real world outside our brains is concerned, it’s not too difficult to tell when two utterances mean the same thing or refer to different realities, especially when we have such abundant video evidence.

Either there were, as Trump contended, crowds joyously dancing on the rooftops on 9/11 or there were not.   There cannot be alternative facts (unless in an alternate universe).  Either Mexico will pay for a wall between our two countries, or it will not.

Alternate facts are BS.

The term “BS” refers to different kinds of language acts, from abstract feel-good language to wish-it-were-so aspirational language to outright fabrication.   Classic BS is saying something you don’t know to be true but sounds good and you hope will be true and is accepted by your audience in this light – and that’s the important thing.  Alternate facts fit this description.

Further, when the deception becomes painfully obvious by omission, nobody has the temerity to ask what happened to the border wall that Mexico was going to pay for.

The example in the linked article actually represents another layer of deception: two statements that mean different things are said to be interchangeable applications of the same idea.  But this is not how language conventionally works. These kinds of inferences are too much of a stretch.  If this principle applied generally, language wouldn’t work.  It would require too much real-time inference-drawing.

He’s just saying words

But maybe the best description of what’s going on comes from Katrina Pearson:

“…to Trump speeches aren’t moral acts in themselves, they’re just ‘words that he is saying, as long-ago spokesperson Katrina Pierson put it.”  (Reader Supported News, “The Trump Era sucks and needs to be over,” Matt Taibbi).

Anybody home?

Once again, I call upon high-profile linguists – Lakoff (100,000 citations!), McWhorter, even the Great One, Chomsky himself.  Hasn’t anybody got a minute to go on TV and denounce the language crimes that facilitate and justify so many of the other crimes that plague our society?