The world is a weird place in 2017. Suddenly the term “Alternate facts” is being thrown out by the administration of The Most Powerful Country in the World (TM) and we are confronted with a regime in the US that seems to believe they can make up the truth.
But this shouldn’t be that shocking to us. The powers that be have manipulated “the facts” since there were people in power. It’s just that the Trump administration is more open about it than most governments of liberal democratic countries.
There are two parts to this use of “alternate facts” – why governments might use them and why certain segments of the population believe them. I am more interested in the latter, but I think addressing the former is necessary.
Why the Powerful Manipulate the Truth
Since there were people with more power than others, those people have manipulated the truth. Why? Because reality has never conformed to the wishes and whims of anyone. No matter how powerful the monarch or the dictator, they are not so powerful as to alter the fabric of the universe.
In Cambodia in the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge sought to reinvent society from the ground up. But they came to realize that even the Khmer language itself contained the power dynamics they wanted to wipe out. But they could not eradicate the language. There were always vestiges of the old regime left which reminded them of their failure. So they killed everyone who got in the way of their new reality.
That’s an extreme example, but what the powerful want and what reality is are often at odds, particularly when powerful rulers go beyond the expected behaviour norms of their position. So you might say that one reason the powerful try to deny, obfuscate or alter the truth is to show their power.
But there’s a more instrumental and practical reason and that is that the truth often exposes flaws in the powerful so it must be hidden or altered. All rulers are human and therefore imperfect. There will always be things they cannot control and they will always make mistakes. Both realities make the ruler look weak. This is particularly true in representative democracies.
Take, for instance, the President of the United States and the economy. In a strong economy, the president, or his advisors, take credit. This is, in and of itself, rather absurd. Economies are extremely complex, and the US economy is particularly complex. The idea that the one man who is president is the causal factor for the economy doing well is patently false. And yet presidents and their teams say this all the time. Worse, everyone believes it.
The same is true for the opposite set of circumstances: if there is a recession the White House will say it has nothing to do with them. The president has gone from the sole causal factor to his policies having zero affect and effect. They will also claim that the slightest improvements in certain sectors of the economy are proof that their new policies are working, regardless of any causation or even correlation. They do this to attempt to stem criticism. The next election isn’t that far away.
Why do we buy it?
We buy into these lies and distortions for many reasons but the simplest is that we all prefer simple explanations. If our rulers give us a simple narrative – no matter how stupid – we’re much more likely to accept it than if they actually attempt to be honest with us. So it’s not entirely the ruler’s fault, is it? Wouldn’t you rather hear “Read my lips, no new taxes” than a nuanced discussion of why taxes are inevitable?
In a representative democracy, the average person buys such crap during political campaigns it’s no wonder we’re primed for even bigger distortions. There are always the skeptics, and nobody falls for everything all the time (those on the right are quick to jump on the most insignificant of financial or “moral” scandals, those on the left are quick to jump on anything that even smells of discrimination) but we want to believe the rulers we like, especially when they lie to us. We want to hear things that confirm our beliefs, no matter how unreal our beliefs truly are.
The obvious manipulation, distortion and outright fabrication of the crowd size at an inauguration may seem like a terrible thing, but that’s only if you don’t like Donald Trump. The end justifies the means if you do like him.
But I think there’s more to it than just “I like this guy so I believe his lies.”
Alternative Facts and the Just World
A huge part of why these “alternative facts” are appealing is because most of us – if not all of us – secretly believe that the world is fair. The Just World Fallacy is the fallacious belief that the universe is ordered and just so that we all get what we deserve. The belief that the truth is not correct and needs an alternative explanation is one expression of this fallacy.
It might seem counter-intuitive to suggest that people who believe in “alternative facts” are just victims of the Just World Fallacy. After all, people who reject reality must believe the world is unfair, right? That’s why they’re rejecting reality.
But the belief that the world is fair – the Just World Fallacy – is itself a rejection of reality. The way it is expressed in the belief in “alternative facts” by the Right is the following: The world was once fair, should be fair and needs to be made fair again. Liberals, academics, scientists, people who hate America, and everyone else using factual information to show that America was not a great place for everyone in the past, to expose injustices and the like, have made the world unfair and unfair for me specifically. The only way to combat that is to resort to relativism; my perception is now reality, even if I know that to be false.
Obviously, few if any of the people who are espousing “alternative facts” are self-aware enough to realize this is what they are actually saying. “Alternative facts” mostly appeal to people are less self-aware simply because self-awareness breeds knowledge that one’s perception is not reality. The Just World Fallacy afflicts all of us, to some degree or other, but it particularly affects those of us who lack self-awareness and who do not regularly try to place ourselves in others’ shoes.
These false narratives built on false, untested (and usually untestable) assumptions have long appealed to those who think that the world was once a fair place but isn’t any more. “Alternative Facts” are just the next step down that road. The difference is that, whereas traditional false narratives rely less on the rejection of individual facts and more on the construction of selective (or distorted) facts and truths to create a false story of reality, these new alternative facts rely on the rejection of specific facts and truths for the further strengthening of these false narratives. Both are expressions of the belief that the world is no longer fair towards us, one is just a far more extreme version of it.
If people didn’t feel like the world was no longer fair, there would be no temptation to believe in the patently absurd. Look at the Trump administration and their denial of the crowd size at the inauguration. I’m sure some people were fully aware of the crowd size being smaller. But if you believe that nobody in the administration actually believed that the crowd size is bigger you’re kidding yourself. Self-deception is extraordinarily powerful and it does override reality. Members of the Trump administration saw that crowd and saw a bigger crowd than ever before because they believe with all their hearts that the media, the left and the world is treating them unfairly. Seriously.
Have you seen JFK?
Remember the trial scene where Kevin Costner’s character, Jim Garrison, stresses the frame in the Zapruder film that shows Kennedy’s head move, in order to show Kennedy was shot from the Grassy Knoll? “Back and to the left” Costner chants, over and over and over.
For years and years, I would tell people about Kennedy’s head. I would say there’s no way that Oswald acted alone because Kennedy’s head recoils back and to the left from the impact of the bullet. Once the internet came along, I told people to look up the Zapruder film to see this proof. One day my roommate took me up on it.
He found the Zapruder film online and we watched it in his room. We watched Kennedy’s head go back and to the left. But, before that, we watched Kennedy’s chin dive forwards and down with so much force that it forced his head back up and to the left. The shot came from behind him. I was floored and embarrassed. I had been telling everyone I knew this “back and to the left” since I saw JFK but it was wrong.
It’s not as though I had never seen the Zapruder film and just taken Oliver Stone’s word for it. I had seen parts of the Zapruder film in JFK, sure, but I had also watched the film online. But without anyone to counter the interpretation I had brought to the footage, I never saw Kennedy’s head move down first. I only saw it move back and to the left, back and to the left.
Seeing a large crowd where there isn’t one may seem like a very different thing, but it’s not. Just like I couldn’t see part of the motion of Kennedy’s head, certain people looking at that crowd saw people where there weren’t any. When looking at previous inaugurations, they saw fewer people or people who were not attending the inauguration, but who happened to get in the photo by accident.
I’m lucky that I was alone in a room with just one other person and the circumstances allowed me to reveal my mistake despite my embarrassment. I’m lucky that I was able to acknowledge the truth. In different circumstances, I would have doubled down and claimed my roommate was wrong and that Kennedy’s head didn’t go forward first. With those different circumstances, I would likely still be a Kennedy Kool-Aid drinker to this day.1 Sean Spicer doesn’t have that luxury. Whether or not he actually believed what he said about the crowds, the people above him did, and so he had little choice.
To any of us watching that farce who already feel that the world is upside down and topsy turvy, hearing an authority figure tell us that crowd is bigger is probably all that we need to believe it. How we defend this position when pressed2 will depend on the person – you may say you see some people where there aren’t any, I may say the crowds of the past were hugely exaggerated, it doesn’t matter – but the essential point is that belief overrides reality. It doesn’t matter what the belief is so much as it matters that the belief re-establishes the fallacy that the world is fair. The crowd at Trump inauguration was the biggest in the history of inauguration crowds because that is what Trump deserved. And Trump deserved that because he is making America Great Again. Trump is making America Great Again because he is a tenacious, self-made businessman who, through the marvels of the free hand of the market – that rewards hard work and punishes laziness in our fair and just universe – made millions through his incomparable business acumen.