Part 4—Tales of tribal prejudgment: We noticed an intriguing contretemps of a type in today's New York Times.
Atop hard-copy page A20, our eyes fell upon Linda Qiu's latest FACT CHECK. We spotted a disagreement of sorts between Qiu's first paragraph and the headline which topped her piece:
QIU (7/27/17): 7 Falsehoods at 3 Events In 1 DayUh-oh! The editor who wrote the headline advertised seven falsehoods. But in her text, Qiu had referred to seven "misleading statements."
In just a few hours on Tuesday, President Trump made seven misleading statements: about Middle East politics, during a joint news conference with Prime Minister Saad Hariri of Lebanon; about veterans affairs reforms, in remarks to “American heroes”; and about jobs and health care, to supporters in Ohio. Here’s an assessment.
Is a misleading statement a falsehood? Moses produced no tablet resolving this question, but in general we'd have to say no.
A communicator can thoroughly mislead an audience while making perfectly accurate statements. Generally speaking, words like "misleading" entered the language, long ago, to offer us an alternative to describing a statement as "false."
(Such distinctions are also widely observed in the world's several other languages, including the earlier languages out of which English emerged.)
Just for the record, what kinds of statements did Qiu actually cite? Were the statements misleading, or false?
That isn't our point of concern today. But she specifically describes one claim by Donald J. Trump as "false," another as a "stretch."
We'd say that Qiu may have stretched and misled a bit too, for example in her sixth boldfaced claim. In that sixth presentation, she also revived her wondrously confusing formulation in which "[l]egal permanent residents who haven’t worked in the United States for 10 years are not eligible for food assistance or Medicaid within the first five years of entering the country."
That statement is wonderfully confusing. Would you call it misleading? False?
Our language gives us many ways to describe statements which are false and/or misleading or otherwise somehow bogus. Before our week is through, we plan to visit immortal Austin, reviewing some of the ruminations in his masterful books (How to Do Things With Words; Sense and Sensibilia) and in some of his most famous lectures or essays (Three Ways of Spilling Ink; A Plea for Excuses).
In effect, Austin was Wittgenstein gifted with clarity, but that's not our topic today. Today, we want to review a recent statement which seemed to be blindingly obvious.
The statement drew applause from the world's brightest people at a recent high-end lecture. The estimable Masha Gessen delivered the statement as part of the Arthur Miller Lecture at the 2017 PEN World Voices Festival.
Her statement seemed to be blindingly obvious. Unable to restrain themselves, the crowd burst into applause:
GESSEN (5/7/17): ...we have to become guardians of our language. We have to keep it alive and working. That means being very intentional about using words.For background, see yesterday's report.
That means, for example, calling lies "lies."
I am actually—
Gessen said we should call lies "lies." The audience burst into applause.
It should be said that Gessen was specifically prescribing what journalists, including reporters, should do. As she continued, she specifically scolded National Public Radio for failing, indeed for refusing as a general matter of policy, to call lies "lies."
Should reporters call lies "lies?" The answer may seem obvious, but let's reason by way of analogy.
Presumably, reporters should call bank robberies "bank robberies." But before they do, they should probably ascertain that a bank has actually been robbed.
If they aren't yet sure of that fact, there are ways to report their uncertainty. They can refer to an alleged, apparent or reported bank robbery, after which they can describe the state of the evidence.
In the matters Gessen was discussing, should NPR have described Donald J. Trump's misstatements and apparent misstatements as "lies?"
Some of the misstatements in question seemed to be truly remarkable howlers. But did that mean that news reporters at NPR should have described them as "lies?"
The network had explained its reticence on several occasions, not always with perfect clarity. As Gessen continued, she hurried past NPR's explanation, then issued several semi-howlers of her own:
GESSEN (continuing directly): The NPR argument is that the definition of "lie," their argument for not using the word "lie" when describing what Donald Trump does, is that the definition of "lie" involves intent. A lie is a statement made with the intention to deceive. And NPR does not have conclusive information on Trump's intent.Again, the audience erupted in applause. But here on our own sprawling campus, we observed a different reaction:
The problem is that the euphemism "misstatement" clearly connotes a lack of intent, as though Trump simply took an accidental wrong step.
And the thing is that words exist in time, right? The word "misstatement" suggests a singular occurrence, thereby eliding Trump's history of lying. The word "misstatement" as applied to Trump is actually a lie.
Our youthful analysts were loudly wailing rattling the chains with which we help them resolve to stay seated, and fully attentive, at their spartan study carrels.
It should be noted that Gessen never quoted anything that had ever been said by anyone at NPR. As in her native Russia, so too here:
Our public discourse tends to die when major figures treat themselves to such unfortunate shortcuts.
That said, it it true as a general matter? As a general matter, does the word "misstatement" suggest that the misstatement in question was uttered in good faith, was just "an accidental wrong step?"
We have no idea why you'd say that. It's abundantly clear that NPR's Mary Louise Kelly was suggesting no such thing in the NPR report about Trump which launched a thousand semantic ships. But if a reporter is concerned about that possible connotation, she is of course free to say this:
She is free to refer to Donald J. Trump's "extreme misstatement, which flies in the face of apparently obvious photographic evidence."
In short, she can use her words!
How about that other claim? If someone refers to a "misstatement" by Trump, does that word "suggest a singular occurrence, thereby eliding Trump's history of lying?"
We don't know why you'd say that. If a reporter had that concern, she could simply say this:
She could refer to Donald J. Trump's "latest misstatement, one in a puzzling list of misstatements on this particular point."
Once again, she can use her words. There are many to choose from!
Gessen spoke to an audience of writers. Earlier, in an unfortunate moment, she'd made the ultimate tribal claim, saying that she and her fellow writers "invariably" act in good faith:
GESSEN: Now, we writers have often spent time, much of it in the late twentieth century, questioning the ability of words to reflect facts, and the existence of objective facts themselves.Good grief! "When writers and academics question the limits of language, it is invariably an exercise that grows from a desire to bring more light into the public sphere?"
There are those who have, whether with glee or with shame, observed a sort of relationship between those post-modern exercises and Trump’s post-truth, post-language ways. But I think this reflects a basic misunderstanding, or perhaps a willing conflation of intentions.
When writers and academics question the limits of language, it is invariably an exercise that grows from a desire to bring more light into the public sphere, to arrive at a shared reality that is more nuanced than it was yesterday. To focus ever more tightly on the shape, weight, and function of any thing that can be named, or to find names for things that have not, in the past, been observed.
We writers "invariably" act in good faith, with good intentions? If we might borrow from Michael Corleone:
Who's being naive now, Kay? Simply put, we humans aren't like that.
Gessen told her audience of writers that they "invariably" act in good faith. This is the kind of tribal thinking which can betray the finest of minds and the best of souls, especially at a time like this, when tribal feeling runs high.
Should NPR have referred to Donald Trump's statements as "lies?" They had said they couldn't state, as a matter of fact, that the misstatements in question were lies. Gessen blew past this sensible analysis, then made some peculiar claims of her own.
For our money, old patterns should hold in this area. Reporters should be very reluctant about describing misstatements as "lies."
Meanwhile, in the case of Donald J. Trump, it seems to us there's an obvious basis for a special reluctance. When people seem to be mentally ill, do we normally say that they've lied?
Tomorrow: Regarding possible illness or dementia, Slate pair seem to observe two guilds' rules