When asked why Sean Spicer, the newly-christened White House Press Secretary, outright lied about the size of the crowd at President Donald Trump’s inauguration, Kellyanne Conway, Counselor to the President, provided a … different perspective.
“You’re saying it’s a falsehood,” she said to NBC’s Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press.” “And they’re giving … alternative facts.”
Alternative facts. I was incredulous, and apparently the internet was, too. The clip and the new term went viral, as the gaffes of prominent political figures often do.
What is a “fact?” A quick Google search will tell you it’s “a thing that is indisputably the case.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “a piece of information presented as having objective reality.” With facts, there isn’t wiggle room.
With the perception of facts, on the other hand, there may be nuance. My friend and fellow Daily columnist Roland Davidson put it well a year ago in relation to competing understandings of capitalism: “Each individual’s definition comes from their own political location.”
Rest assured, I’m not going to rationalize Conway rationalizing Spicer rationalizing indisputably false crowd statistics. However, I’d like to share some related learnings from courses that have seriously forced me to question my approach to facts in a way that I think may be more valuable.
The first class centered on how governments can create policies that focus on apologizing, reconciling and administering reparations to historically subjugated and discriminated-against groups. One of my primary takeaways was that “truth” is rarely universal, and what becomes historical record may leave out the perspectives of the marginalized.
People live and experience different truths, and our mass understanding of those truths is often passed through a gauntlet that filters out specific identities on the basis of a power structure.
One paragraph from a recent reading in a class on social justice development explains this nicely. In “Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples,” Linda Tuhiwai Smith explains, “Writing or literacy, in a very traditional sense of the word, has been used to determine the breaks between the past and the present, the beginning of history and the development of theory.” She later elaborates that these limitations, among others, have often restricted the proliferation of indigenous groups’ narratives in previously colonized areas of the world.
Concrete example: Was Columbus a discoverer or a murderer? Both? Which of these presentations is the “alternative” one? Maybe it’s a question of who’s telling the story, and clearly, it’s influenced by whether or not all the facts are present in the first place.
The combination of the two courses in particular adds to this train of thought. One focused on how media can influence political behavior and the other focused on how utilizing concepts of behavioral psychology can change the policy implementation process.
Both included discussions about motivated reasoning, an umbrella theory that explains that we have competing goals — accuracy and group belonging — ruled by emotions, not rationality. It is widely accepted that people would much rather believe they’re right and find resources to confirm their beliefs (or dispute others’) than admit their views might be flawed.
Ultimately, then, “alternative facts” don’t exist. Period. But what we believe is dependent upon myriad factors: our own identities, where we grow up, what we’re taught, who teaches us, the materials with which we’re taught and what those materials either include or don’t include.
Historical erasure and suppression exist. Motivated reasoning exists. The reality that we are not all exposed to others’ perspectives on a daily basis exists. Fact (hold the alternative): there is a great deal of information dispersed without nuance or the full representation of all those affected by its delivery.
The University of Michigan has been incredibly formative for me in this regard. I’ve learned how easy it can be to disregard specific groups and the subsequent actions some take to rationalize the status quo when a changing reality spawns discomfort. I’ve also come to realize how necessary it is to challenge the status quo instead of succumb to it.
In regard to Trump’s inauguration, photo evidence is as empirical as it gets. The end game: Moving forward, it will be of collective importance to talk about eliminating barriers to unheard narratives, not bicker about crowd sizes. I hope our federal government will do the same.
Michael Sugerman can be reached at email@example.com.