The Death of Language

October 4, 2017 § 1 Comment

We live in an era where the President of the United States labels anything he doesn’t like as #FAKENEWS.  Last year, we watched Brexit succeed (at least in a referendum) where the Leave side was guilty of inventing several truths that were actually lies.  And one of the President’s surrogates has coined the term ‘alternative facts’ to describe lies.  I wrote about this last year in the wake of the Presidential Election.

The damage to public discourse and the use of language through politicians who lie nearly every time they open their mouth is obvious.  But there is another source of danger when it comes to the actual meaning of words and their usage: sports journalism.

As my friend John likes to note, nothing should ever get in the way of ESPN’s ‘hot take’ on any and all, most notably language and truth.  But it’s not just ESPN.  Take, for example, Canada’s TSN (for those who don’t know, The Sports Network is the largest sports network in Canada, with a monopoly on broadcasting the Canadian Football League; it also holds regional marketing rights to NHL games, as well as Major League Baseball, and various other sports.  It is also 20% owned by ESPN).  A headline earlier this week on TSN.ca states,  that “Pens, Lightning Battle It Out in First 7-Eleven Power Rankings of 2017-18.”

Um, no. The Penguins and Lightning are not battling it out to top the power rankings.  Why?  Because these are entirely subjective rankings created by TSN.  The Lightning and Penguins did not play a game, a play off series or anything for this honour.  TSN’s staff just ranked them as the two best teams in the game.

And so you may not think this a big deal, TSN’s headline writers are just looking for attention to encourage people to click on the story.  Sure they are.  But in so doing, they are messing with the meaning of words.  They are cheapening the meaning of the verb ‘to battle.’

This kind of thing is pretty common in sports journalism, whether through laziness or incompetence, I can’t tell.  But you will notice that around trade deadlines or amateur drafts or free agency periods, sports journalists will tell you about the ‘names’ being thrown around.  Sure, they are names being bandied about (mostly by these very same journalists, who get to make up the news and then report on it).  But names don’t get signed, trades, or claimed in drafts.  Players do.

Maybe you think I’m just a crank for being worried about language.  Good for you.  You’re wrong.

Of course language is mutable, of course meanings of words change over time, and the way we speak changes.  Ever heard someone speak 18th century English?  Or how about the word ‘awful’?  Initially, the word meant ‘full of awe,’ or something that was truly awesome (to use a word that has developed to fill the void caused by awful’s evolution), as in the ‘awful power of nature.’  Today, we would say the ‘awesome power of nature.’  And awful means something that sucks.  But these are changes that have occurred over centuries, and occurred due to colonization, and the like (want to have some fun? Compare the meaning of English words in the UK and the US).

The mis-use of words like ‘battle’ to describe an artificial power ranking that actually has nothing to do with the teams allegedly in this battle is something else entirely.   So is discussing the ‘names’ that were traded.  It’s a mixture of exaggeration and laziness.  And, ultimately, this kind, I don’t know, laziness or idiocy like this renders language meaningless.

 

Left Wing Nut Jobs

February 20, 2017 § 8 Comments

We tend to live in ideological echo chambers these days.  This is as true of the left as it is of the right and of the centre.  But something has shifted in recent months that I find rather interesting.  Until 2015, liberals and lefties could, and did, say with smug superiority that they dealt in facts and reality and too many people on the other did not (the latter is proved by the ‘alternative facts,’ or lies, that come out of Whitehall in London and the White House in DC, for example).

But since the autumn of 2016, I have been harangued on Twitter by leftists who trade in alternative facts and lies themselves.  In October, I found myself in the cross-hairs of the anti-Hillary Clinton left.  I had been having a discussion with one of my tweeps about President Bill Clinton’s attempts to introduce universal health care coverage in the United States in 1992-94.  This push was led, to a large degree, by Hillary Clinton.  It failed for a multitude of reasons, but the simple fact of the matter is that Mrs. Clinton and her husband attempted to introduce universal health care to the US.

During this discussion, I got attacked, in increasingly vicious language, by two leftists who apparently believed that Mrs. Clinton is the face of evil incarnate.  They accused me of lying, and, of course, being a Clinton apologist, amongst other things.  Not all that interested in this argument, I posted a link to the Wikipedia page explaining this (note that ‘Hillarycare’ also redirects to this page).  Sure, it’s Wikipedia, but it gives a general idea of what happened.  Not good enough for one of my accusers.  She pointed out Wikipedia is ‘not a primary source.’  No, it’s not.  But there is a whole bibliography leading to such sources.  So, instead, she sent me links to heavily redacted documents and heavily edited YouTube videos of Mrs. Clinton’s speeches on the matter, including one video that showed her in four different outfits.  None of this changes historical fact.

In December, it was British leftists who insisted that white people had been slaves in the United States.  This isn’t really anything new, the Irish have been claiming they were brought here as ‘slaves,’ but now this was expanded to include the Scots, English, and Welsh.  And they did not mean what people usually get confused, which is indentured servitude.  They meant that white people were chattel slaves like Africans.  In this case, though, they provided no sources, just their beliefs.  And, as one pointed out to me, she was entitled to her opinion.  Sure. She is. But she’s still wrong.  And I have the realities of history behind me on that one.

And then, a couple of weeks ago, the subject was the Civil War in the US.  The Republican Party tweeted a Happy Birthday to the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, claiming that Lincoln united the country.  Whatever one thinks of Lincoln as president, and I consider him one of the best presidents all-time (and it’s not just me, as my new favourite Wikipedia page shows), he did not unite the country.  Lincoln’s election was the excuse used for Southern secession.  So, in the midst of a conversation with a tweep, also an historian on this matter, I got harangued by a lefty.

He insisted that slave owners ‘were killing in the name of slavery from 1856 on.’ He wasn’t wrong.  And I could point to events such as Bleeding Kansas in 1854.  But, that doesn’t change the simple historical fact that Secession began with Lincoln’s election.

In all three cases, my credentials as an historian were challenged.  I have been called a ‘Professor of Bullshit,’ a ‘Doctor of Horseshit.’ I have been called a fascist, and a genocidal apologist (of what genocide, I’m not sure, I’m presuming she meant the genocide of white people sold as slaves in the 18th and 19th century).  In all three cases, lefties have based ‘arguments’ on ‘alternative facts,’ or, what I would call bullshit.  But all the weight of historical reality meant nothing to them.  They didn’t like the facts, so they decided they weren’t true.

This is deeply disturbing.

 

Writing the History of the Trump Era

February 14, 2017 § 4 Comments

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked how future historians will be able to tell our history?  We live in what is allegedly a post-fact era.  First things first, whatever you want to call it, post-fact, post-truth, alternative facts, these are all just lies.  I have already commented on this.  Nonetheless, whether this is just a re-labelling of lying, we are still in this cultural moment.  Every day the Trump administration deals in what White House Counsel KellyAnne Conway calls ‘alternative facts.’  What is the truth now, my interlocutor wanted to know?

I have been asked this question in a variety of ways in the past year and it is a real challenge we face.  But we don’t face in terms of future historians, academics and journalists are already facing the problem.  Michael A. Innes, a good friend of mine, has been thinking about this of late too.  He notes that

Media outlets come in all shapes and sizes.  Some are loud and boisterous, while others are more stoic. “Newspapers of record” are a recognized form of the latter.  Some try to report what happened, while others try to convince readers why and how they happened. Media output, in other words, can serve more than one purpose, and only one of them is to provide researchers and analysts with a source of evidence needed to  determine the factual basis of past events: what happened, when it happened, who was involved, what they said about what happened and so on.  Reconstructing past events is a tricky business, and some media environments are so highly politicized – the rhetoric so overheated and contentious – that verifiable facts are almost impossible to discern from the collection of color and misdirection in which they’re embedded.

Indeed.  The reconstruction of the past is indeed a tricky bit and I will go further than Innes and argue that it is an inherently political act.  This is true whether it’s on the minor scale, such as I did in reconstructing a version of the history of Griffintown, Montreal (and yes, I am enjoying linking my own book).  But it’s also what societies and cultures do anyway.

When we reconstruct the past, we do so from a variety of sources, including printed records, including government documents, diaries, published work, literature.  We also use film, TV shows, documentaries, and music.  We use oral sources, both those already collected and ones we collect.  And we also make use of the digital: Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, blogs, etc.  We have to make decisions in what gets included in our reconstructed histories.

Historians, we tend to go further than journalists.  Innes notes that some media outlets report on what happened, whilst others focus on why  and how they happened.  And quite often the latter try to convince you of the version of events they are pushing. This is the difference between, say, The New York Times and Breitbart, or the CBC and FoxNews.  The Times and the CBC deal in facts in reporting the news, and editorials are clearly labelled.  In the case of Breitbart and FoxNews, there is a blurring of ‘news’ and editorials.

When I teach, I always remind my students that we are more interested in the how and the why of history, we need to move beyond facts and into interpretation.  How do we do that? Logic and reasoning.  We use other scholars as guides.  We read what other historians have written on the subject, or an analogous subject.  We consider their interpretations based on the evidence.  We agree or disagree.  Or we agree and see another possibility.  And so on.

Back in Grade 2 or thereabouts, my teacher introduced us to the who, what, when, where, why and how? The key questions for all situations.  So in writing history, we begin with the who, what, when, and where.  We establish the facts.  And we establish these from our sources.  Even in this post-fact era, there are still facts.  They still get reported, they’re still plain to find in doing research.  And from there, we ascertain the why and the how.

So how do we source that in the post-truth world?  Innes notes the guerrilla archiving of data, creating an archive of truth and records of the real world to counter the post-factual. But there are other, more simpler ways we do this through the ‘reading’ of our sources, whether they are government documents, newspapers, novels, films, music, Twitter, and so on.  When we read these sources, we do so within a cultural context, of course.  And we do tend to have strong bullshit detectors.

My MA thesis tells the story of the Corrigan Affair, which erupted in Sainte-Sylvestre, Quebec, in late 1855 when neighbourhood bully, an apostate, Robert Corrigan, was beaten to death by a gang of his Irish-Catholic neighbours at the county fair.  When his murderers evaded capture for the next six months, all hell broke loose in a highly sectarian Canada.  Anglo-Protestant politicians and newspapers were beside themselves over the fact that these Irish-Catholic ‘hooligans’ managed to evade the state’s attempts to bring them to justice.  They did so through the help of their neighbours and an intimate knowledge of geography of the Appalachian foothills of southern Quebec.

The local Anglican priest in Saint-Sylvestre, Rev. William King, was ground zero for the ‘alternative facts’ of the Corrigan Affair.  In daily dispatches to government ministers and the Quebec City  press, Rev. King constructed an alternate reality where the Irish-Catholics of Sainte-Sylvestre were parading around openly armed and threatening Anglo-Protestant, beating them nearly to death for fun.  He told of marauding gangs of Irish-Catholics breaking into homes in the middle of the night and tearing homes to pieces and beating the men and boys of the house.  Rev. King’s invented reality was accepted verbatim by government ministers and the Quebec City press.

So how did I find out what happened in Saint-Sylvestre in the fall and winter of 1855-56?  I reconstructed events through a mixture of sources, both government and official and vernacular.  I relied on petitions from the Irish-Catholics of Saint-Sylvestre, who claimed to be brutalized by the Orange Order.  I relied on the French Canadian press of Quebec, which watched both sides with bemusement.  I read the depositions of the French Canadians of Saint-Sylvestre, who were similarly bemused by their neighbours’ actions.  and from these varying sources, I reconstructed the events of the Corrigan Affair.  I learned to tell fact from fiction, or at least something that looked more likely to have occurred than not.

And this is what historians will do when they tell the story of our time.  They will look at the lies that are produced at the White House and then compare that to what other sources say about what is going on, including the media, but also our Twitter feeds, our Facebook posts, our Reddit commentary.  Maybe even blogs like mine.

We will continue to examine history as we always have, sifting through varying and contradictory versions of events to reconstruct what actually did happen.  And, of course, being a public historian first and foremost, I will be fascinated by the myth-making at the White House, and the puncturing of that myth by the rest of society, about the hows and whys we choose to remember this time.

 

Post-Truth Is A Lie

November 18, 2016 § 7 Comments

Liberal news media sites are all a-gog with the rise of the ‘post-truth’ politician.  Donald Trump is the most egregious example, nearly everything that comes out of his mouth is a lie.  But Boris Johnson.  Nigel Farage.  Marine Le Pen.  I could go on.  It’s so bad that the venerable Oxford Dictionary has named ‘post-truth’ its word of the year for 2016.

I do not like the term ‘post-truth.’ I believe this is a case where a spade is a spade.  These politicians are liars. They’re lying.  They tell lies. Untruths. Fibs.  Fiction.  Calling it ‘post-truth’ normalizes their lying.  It makes it seem ok. Like, we’re all in on the joke.  Like none of this matters.

It matters.  Deeply.  In the country I live, the United States, we have just elected a president who has determined that Donald Trump speaks the truth exactly 4% of the time. Four per cent.  A further 11% of his public utterances are ‘mostly true.’  And 15% are ‘half true.’  But half-true is still a lie.  I learned the term from a lawyer friend, who notes lawyers love terms like this, because it means something is essentially a lie, but because there’s some factual veracity to it, it’s copacetic.  So.  Even if we want to be generous to Trump, 30% of his public utterances contain factual veracity.  The other 70%, the overwhelming majority of what he says?  Well, they’re ‘mostly false’ (19%), ‘false’ (34%), and the remainder, 17%, are  what PoliFact calls ‘pants on fire,’ as in that children’s rhyme: ‘Liar, liar, pants on fire!’

Yes. The United States has just elected a man who speaks God’s honest truth 4% of the time he opens his mouth in public.

This is not ‘post-truth.’ This is lying.  Donald Trump is a liar. Boris Johnson is a liar. Marine Le Pen is a liar.  Nigel Farage is a liar.  We need to call this what it is if we wish to combat it. The decisions people like Trump and Johnson get to make as head of state and government minister, respectively, impact the lives of millions of people, and not just in their own countries.

A lie is a lie is a lie.

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