The words we use are vitally important; I often say that 90% of everything is how we say things, not what we actually mean. I remember learning this ages ago when looking at the papers with respect to Israel and Vietnam: different impressions come from the use of “freedom-fighter” vs. “insurgent” vs. “guerilla”.
A recent article related to President Trump brought this back to mind. In a musing yesterday, Mark Evanier wrote:
I think though we sometimes devalue the word “lie” by applying it to anything your opponent says that you can possibly spin as untrue. Years ago, a gent who worked for the National Weather Service told me, “We’ll predict a 60% chance of rain for Los Angeles…and then even if it rains in the valley but not in the basin, we hear from people in the basin who accuse us of lying. Not even of being wrong, which we weren’t. They say we lied.”
As a staunch believer in the maxim, “Never attribute to deviousness, that which can be explained by incompetence,” I often think the “L” word is inapplicable. People — even people I don’t like — do make mistakes. They misspeak. Or they make logical assumptions which turn out to be wrong. A lot of people have jumped on Trump for spelling the word “tap” with two P’s in a recent, infamous tweet. These are apparently people who never made a typo themselves.
I, too, believe in the maxim (which I call an adage) of never ascribing to malice what one can ascribe to stupidity. There are kerfuffles I see every day that people jump on as malace — Spicer’s flag pin being upside down, Kellyanne Conway sitting on a sofa in the Oval Office informally. Folks — that stuff doesn’t manner. They are errors of stupidity, not intentional malice, signals, or disrespect. They aren’t worth the time to discuss.
Mark’s article was triggered by an opinion piece in the Jewish Journal wondering whether Trump was worse than a liar. Here’s a quote from that article:
Midway through the annual Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture at UCLA last week on “Maintaining Intellectual Integrity in the Age of Trump,” Wall Street Journal foreign affairs columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Bret Stephens tried to summarize his in-depth analysis of President Trump’s dicey relationship with the truth.
“If I had to sum it up in a single sentence,” he said, “this would be it: Truth is what you can get away with.”
When I heard that, a light bulb went off. I thought of a book I read years ago, “On Bullshit,” by former Princeton professor and moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt.
One of the key insights in the book is that bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are. “It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth,” Frankfurt writes. “Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.”
When we use the word “lie”, there is an implicit assumption of intent: the speaker knows the truth, and is intentionally telling you something other than the truth. But if one is truly incompetent, truly stupid, truly ignorant, truly lazy enough not to know, then is that false statement a lie or just evidence of stupidity. Do we believe that Trump knows the truth? Or is he just making it up as he goes, bullshitting us because that works in business, and most people are too stupid to do the research to find him wrong. In business, you pull values for things out of thin air, and if your buyer believes you, you win.
Believing the lie and getting wrapped around the wheel of bullshit brings me to my other point: When have we (and by “we”, I mean us liberals) fallen into the same tropes that other side used against Obama? I look at my news feed on Facebook, and I see people believing all sort of bullshit about Trump, and getting all worried about truly minor things. I see folks being Chicken Little running around. I’m not saying it may not be justified. However, to an observer, it looks like the same scare tactics that the Conservatives used against Obama. Calling him names. Thinking everything is a sign of dictatorship on the way (the latest is worrying about the administration firing 45 US attorneys at DOJ, when this happens with every change of adminsitration and party).
There are plenty of things this administration is doing that are highly problematic. Gutting science. Gutting health care. Gutting programs designed to protect the American people from all forms of fraud and abuse. Gutting social programs. Dr. Martin Luthur King Jr. once said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.”. Have we forgotten that? But worrying about a flag pin? Feet on a sofa? The first lady’s tits? C’mon.
The change we need isn’t found in the sofa cushions. The change we need is found in fighting for the things that really matter.