“Pilate saith unto (Jesus), What is truth?” (John 18:38)
“Let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:7)
Recently presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway turned unexpectedly philosophical during a live argument with NBC’s Chuck Todd on Meet the Press by saying the White House press secretary had used “alternative facts” while ripping media reports that crowds at Trump’s inauguration were somewhat smaller than was being claimed by the newly sworn-in president.
Within minutes her apparently ad-libbed phrase produced mocking memes, hashtags, and instantly set the agenda for the next day’s late night monologues.
But while millions laughed, the controversy is not altogether funny.
Daniel Moynihan, a four term Democratic US Senator from New York who also served as President Gerald Ford’s ambassador to the United Nations, once famously said “you are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”
Moynihan died in 2003, and these days his political approach feels both quaint and irrelevant. Because as every partisan believer knows, the facts of any issue proclaimed by those you support are invariably true, while your opponent shamelessly promotes as facts only lies and distortions.
Consider global warming. Barack Obama’s birthplace. Refugees seeking help in America. The national impact of illegal aliens. The social impact of gay marriage. Hillary Clinton’s e-mail account. I could go on.
All of these issues are divisive, and are framed by the partisans on each side with “facts” accepted by supporters, but which are viewed as lies (or, at best, uninformed stupidity) by the opposition. Global warming is hard science or a hoax. Refugees are the tired, poor, and huddled masses, or undercover terrorists. Hillary is in need of rudimentary computer training, or a criminal. You get the idea. These days facts, such as they are, tend to exist only to support partisan issues.
In our rush to isolate ourselves from those with whom we disagree, our very language is becoming proudly incomprehensible to each other. Has modern America truly lost its greatness? Is marriage equality as much an American right as voting? It depends on how you define greatness and right, and these days each side shouts the same words but invests them with definitions that others reject—a modern Babel.
As a young attorney, Founding Father John Adams once said in a colonial court that “facts are stubborn things,” but it’s also true that facts can be slippery. The world was once flat. Smoking was once good for asthmatics. Ingesting tapeworms was once a safe way to lose weight.
And in modern times, those who are religious tend to accept the origins and tenets of their faith as absolute fact, while many of those who are not religious view such faith-as-fact statements as not only misguided but potentially harmful to society.
It’s a debate that’s raged for three thousand years. Philosophers from Plato to Sartre have debated the question of what, exactly, is truth? It was certainly an issue in the time of Jesus, as Pilate declined to accept as truth the testimony of the convicted man who stood before him, and in the process reminded us all that, like it or not, one man’s fact is often another man’s fable.
So even though the side-by-side pictures of the national mall were pretty compelling, the larger arguments over alternative facts and fake news are not new. Nor is the extreme polarization of our competing national cultures. (Anyone remember the 60’s?) What is new is the overwhelming power of the modern media echo chamber, which allows anyone to reduce to near zero the chance of exposure to the thoughtful expression of a point of view with which the listener is predisposed to disagree.
The future? As a society, we may at some point rediscover our common language, and start listening to each other again as we seek common solutions to the serious challenges we face. If not, we may, like the people of Babel, just continue shouting at each other in languages we no longer share, or, like Pilate, spend our time debating the meaning and substance of truth while our best hopes slowly wither in front of us.