Mark Twain, an American storyteller, journalist, essayist and pundit said, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” According to the American Press Institute, “Creating a good story means finding and verifying important or interesting information and then presenting it in a way that engages the audience.”
The recent presidential campaign has been nothing but engaging audiences with good stories. What could be more engaging than debating that size matters. The campaign started out debating the size of a candidate’s hand all the while alluding to his manliness. It would not be unseemly then to begin the new presidency with a debate on the size of an inauguration crowd. The question most Americans really want to know is: So now who has the bigger crowd? This time there is no debate — we have pictures!
The media says not so big. Others say it was huge. Never let a few facts get in the way (even if its thirty or forty thousand people). It is obvious that the president’s press secretary is not concerned. He said “Sometimes we can disagree with the facts.” And a new term is buzzing around: alternative facts.
Uh? The English Oxford Living Dictionaries say a fact is “a thing that is known or proved to be true.” Gravity is a fact: What goes up must come down. There is no gray area between the leap and sudden impact to be debated.
Maybe the alternative fact is the speed at which an object falls. The speed of a falling object can depend on the rotation of the Earth, the mass of the object and altitude. Maybe there is an Equatorial Bulge factor to consider when estimating the size of a crowd in Washington D.C. on a particular day that can skew the numbers.
However, using the logic that it is possible to debate the speed of a falling man, while he is falling, one might be able to agree then that something that is blatantly false or untrue is not necessarily a lie. But at what point does a falsity become a lie? And if it becomes a lie then what kind of lie is it? Is it one of omission or commission? Is it a little white lie or a bold face lie? And then it comes down to who is telling the lie and even the intent of the lie. Is it coming from your investment broker on the merits of your investment portfolio? Is the lie coming from a goal oriented sociopathic liar; a compulsive liar who lies out of habit; or the twice-bitten husband telling his wife her hair looks good?
And then there is the “big lie. The whopper that no one questions because it has just enough plausibility, embarrassment and is so outrageous that it has to be true: like NASA faked all the moon landings and they were a Disney production shot on a Hollywood back lot with a young George Lucas watching.
Nazi Germany knew something about lies, particularly the “Big Lie.” Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister for public enlightenment and propaganda wrote:
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
The Economist says the world has “entered an era of ‘post-truth politics’.” Maybe we have moved back to schoolyard days of “liar, liar pants are on fire, nose is long as a telephone wire.” But then who uses a land line anymore.
According to The Economist, “There is a strong case that, in America and elsewhere, there is a shift towards a politics in which feelings trump facts.” With new technology, social media, fake news and false assertions now fly through cyber space at warp speed. Today there are fewer traditional editors and gatekeepers available to verify and fact check the onslaught of information. We live in a time when any tweeter or wiki-leaker can set thousands of pants on fire with the simple word “send.”
It is much easier for lie to be tweeted than spoken face-to-face. Words lack the changing and shifting body language, the lack of eye contact, the beads of sweat on the forehead or the change in pitch of the voice as those words are spoken.
With an untrusting public being bombarded with facts and fiction The Economist says, “some politicians are getting away with a new depth and pervasiveness of falsehood. If this continues, the power of truth as a tool for solving society’s problems could be lastingly reduced.”
The lunatic fringe has always been out there. They have been like a pack of ravenous wolves circling the herd. Now they are attacking at the core of truth. The fringes are now among the herd and have turned opinion into fact and feelings into reason. Once the fringe runs down the truth; the truth can then be separated into alternative facts and disseminated for mass consumption.
Winston Churchill, as the war-time Prime Minister of Great Britain, knew something about dealing with the “big liars” of World War II. He said: The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.