Donald Trump is worried that the mediator in the first presidential debate on Monday will fact-check his statements. That right there should tell you everything you need to know about what he plans to say, but only if you still know what facts are. So let’s explore the language around the issue for a bit.
The online Merriam Webster Dictionary defines fact as: “something that truly exists or happens : something that has actual existence, a true piece of information”.
This is pretty concise–if you want the most elaborate definition and history of its use, check out the Oxford English Dictionary, online or otherwise. In either one, there’s no denying that the word fact in modern times refers to something that is true, something that actually happens/happened or exists/existed.
Many politicians, talks show hosts, and others in the media play fast and loose with the word fact these days, and with the truth in general. And the media–journalists, news anchors, pundits, etc.–play right into this culture of lying by not calling it lying.
Think of all the ways you’ve heard or read folks in the mainstream media discussing Trump’s lies. His statements are referred to as being inconsistent with reality, being incorrect facts, disputed facts–you name it. Anything but lies.
I’m sure this vocabulary is rooted in a desire to remain polite, objective, or non-confrontational. I find myself sometimes doing the same. Not with the word fact, but with reality. Here and there, when I don’t want to offend more than I have to, I might claim that something isn’t part of my reality, usually when I refer to spiritual issues.
Let’s consult Merriam Webster again. It defines reality as: “the true situation that exists : the real situation; something that actually exists or happens : a real event, occurrence, situation, etc.”.
And so we come to truth. Again, religion doesn’t help matters. For me as an atheist, truth usually refers to issues that are supported by evidence. I know that the truth has a different meaning for religious people, and some of it I accept as self-evident truth as well: murder is bad. But then there is the literal Bible truth that Christian fundamentalists claim–that the world is only a few thousand years old and that Moses parted the Red Sea, for instance. There is overwhelming scientific evidence that these statements are not true, not real, not facts. We can be polite about it, but it can’t be denied. Well, fundamentalists can and do deny it, but that’s for another post.
My point is: this might be where the confusion between fact and truth originated. If truth is subjective, it’s a small step to accepting the notion that facts are subjective. It would explain why the phenomenon of politicians blatantly lying about facts is more prevalent–or more accepted–in America than in most of the west, and why the media is so polite about it: Your reality isn’t my reality, but that’s okay.
Except that it’s not okay.
When referring to statements about the real world–the real, objective world that we all live in–there is most definitely a clear distinction between truth and lies, between fact and fiction, or at least, there used to be, there should be.
When Donald Trump says that he was against the Irak War from the beginning, while there is clear evidence that he wasn’t–that he changed his mind a few years into the war, in an interview in 2004–he is lying. When Trump claims that Obama was born in Kenya, while Obama’s birth certificate proves he was born in Hawaii, he lies. When he says one thing and later says he didn’t, he’s lying.
He’s not obfuscating, he’s not colorful, he’s not bending the facts, he’s not Donald being Donald, he doesn’t live in a different reality–he’s lying. The Irak War really happened, as did the interview with Howard Stern; Obama’s birth certificate really exists, as does the mountain of evidence that has him making countless statements he later claims not to have made.
So let’s give Trump some of his own medicine, shall we? Let’s tell it like it is. Let’s point it out when he or anyone else lies, in clear, direct language that everyone can understand. Facts are facts. You can’t have “your own” facts and there’s no such thing as a disputed fact–facts per definition can’t be questionable or disputed.
Because. They’re. Facts!