The wild exchanges following the recent election reminded me of frontier scribes like Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce or even “Lyin’ Jim” Townsend, the frontier tellers of tales who were not adverse to “filling out” a story, wholly fabricating one, or ever being in one.
As in their inventions, the current standard of truth seems to have moved from the philosopher’s den to the advocate’s podium. Agreement, not proof, is reason enough to believe something: “Obama is a Muslim, everybody knows that.”
Everybody? I don’t – prove it.
The classic demand that an asserter prove his assertion seems to be losing to the big lie.
“Donald Trump’s a Russian agent,” suggests a simple response: “Evidence?” Without evidence, that’s an empty opinion. “Prove he isn’t!” is implicit in it, but if an asserter is allowed to get away with such baseless words, he might next assert even sillier stuff. Demand evidence.
Semanticist S.I. Hayakawa actually distinguished between three types of assertions: reports – which can be proven or disproven (“Hillary won the popular vote in 2016”); inferences – statements about the unknown made on the basis of the known (“Little Richard wears bright clothing so he must be happy”); judgments – expressions of approval or disapproval (“Clinton voters were jerks”).
The closest thing we have to objective truth seems to be scientific verifiability, which Hayakawa said “rests upon the external observation of agreed upon facts, not upon the heaping of judgments.” Where does recent “Fake News” fit in this pattern?
Well, it’s nothing new – just look at those frontier journalists – but it is dangerous when significant numbers of people want to believe it. As Jestin Coler of Disinfomedia admitted, he was “giving them (readers) what they really want to hear.”
Along with other fake news outlets with prestigious-sounding names (70 News, National Report, The Boston Tribune, etc.), it provided confirmation for true believers.
But for professional journalists, in particular, it is important to distrust that which they want to believe. They must beware of the intoxication of partisanship which always hovers nearby.
For instance, 70 News proclaimed that Trump had won the popular vote as well as the electoral vote. Proven wrong by the official count, it then asserted that 3 million Clinton ballots should be rejected because they were cast by illegal voters (no proof provided).
All of Trump’s votes were supposedly legal. In the face of such patent nonsense, you have to wonder how Mark or Ambrose or “Lyin’ Jim” might have covered the election, once they stopped laughing.
Gerald Haslam, author of “In Thought and Action: The Enigmatic Life of S.I. Hayakawa,” can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.