Fact v Fiction in Public Discourse

In an era of fake news, alternative facts, deep state conspiracy theories, absolutists and populists, “political truths” are wielded like linguistic weapons. Any form of dissent (or contrary evidence) is branded as “unpatriotic”, “undemocratic”, “unconstitutional”, “disloyal”, “treasonous”, “elitist”, or “subversive”.

“The Treachery of Images” (Painting by Rene Magritte, image sourced from Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Experts are treated with scepticism, scientists with suspicion, relativists with disdain, pluralists with apoplexy. Anyone seen to be challenging the status quo is dismissed as an “enemy of the people”. The public is being co-opted/coerced into buying wholesale certain political claims and party agendas (often hidden), without any opportunity to subject them to independent scrutiny or fact-checking.

Facts and logic are often the first victims in this abuse of language in the exercise of public discourse. Political slogans don’t even bother to avoid or deny accusations of propaganda: “Yeah? So what?” is often the response.

With that in mind, let’s play semantics and semiotics! To begin with, some opening statements:

1. This is a red car. (Observation, and a Fact if we agree on what is “red”) *

2. Red is the most popular colour of car. (Statement of Fact, if proved statistically) **

3. Red cars hold their value more than green cars. (Opinion, but also a Fact if it can be proved statistically, and we agree on what “value” means in this context)

4. Red cars are better than green cars, but blue cars are better than red cars. (Judgement tending towards a display of bias and prejudice)

Depending on the positioning and messaging, #1-#4 could be used in various marketing and advertising campaigns to sell red cars (or in the case of #4, sell blue cars).

Now, here are two reasonably uncontroversial propositions:

  • “Traffic laws are important to the functioning of society.”
  • “Good government relies on the democratic will of the electorate, and adequate funding of public services via taxation.”

We can see from the way language and truth are mangled in the service of current political debate and social commentary, that “statements of fact” can be easily positioned as “expressions of opinion” (and from there manipulated into pejorative and derogatory accusations or subtexts):

1. Red cars are involved in more road accidents than any other colour of vehicle
(Anyone who drives a red car is more likely to drive recklessly.)

2. People who drive red cars don’t observe the speed limit.
(Anyone who drives a red car is either a libertarian or an anarchist.)

3. People who drive red cars fail to pay their taxes.
(Anyone who drives a red car is anti-government.)

4. People who drive red cars are subversives.
(Anyone who drives a red car is a terrorist.)

5. People who drive red cars are law-abiding citizens.
(Anyone who drives a red car is a conservative. OR: Anyone who doesn’t drive a red car is a criminal.)

6. People who drive red cars give to charity but people who drive blue cars give more.
(Anyone who drives a red car is a better person than someone who drives a green car but not as good as someone who drives a blue car.)

The combination of sweeping generalisations and over-simplification in public discourse can obviously distort meaning and generate distrust. For example:

1. What if all taxis are red? That might mean they spend more time on the road, and therefore are more prone to be involved in traffic accidents.

2. What if more sports cars are red than any other colour? That might mean their drivers are more likely to speed. Or that their owners have more money. Or they are status conscious.

3. What if people who drive red cars come from a specific socio-economic, sectarian or ethnic demographic? Even then, they won’t all agree on the same issues, and they will likely display a similar range of divergent, opposing and contradictory views as the drivers of any other colour of car.

Unfortunately, the current environment for political debate and public commentary is being reduced to a binary state, where nuanced and subtle argument is being sidelined in favour of polarised and partisan politics, where facts are not allowed to get in the way of some convenient diatribe. If only politicians were accountable to voters under the Trade Practices Act – although we may soon see election campaigns subject to misleading and deceptive conduct legislation.

* Colour can also depend on context, as these experiments demonstrate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFC7EyR1lhU

** It’s not actually true: https://www.whichcar.com.au/car-news/most-popular-car-colours

Next week: Business as Unusual  

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