In the recent film Arrival, the linguistic complexities of first contact with an alien species, and humanity disagreeing over what it all means, forms the basis for the story’s conflict. A key concept at the heart of the movie is something called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which argues one’s perception of reality is tied to the language in which we comprehend it. The idea has been controversial since it was put forward, and depending on whether one advances either the “weak” or “strong” versions of it there’s varying levels of support for aspects of it among linguists.
What is language? To grossly oversimplify something a lot of people with Ph.D’s have probably written volumes explaining, at its most rudimentary a language is a collection of sounds and/or symbols meant to categorize the reality in which we live in order to communicate information. Proponents of universal grammar believe this is a function of biology, and the development of human communication is an outgrowth of evolution with fundamental similarities in all languages. However, Sapir-Whorf posits a language is shaped by the culture and environment its users live in, whether expansive or limiting, and that in turn can influence or even determine the way people perceive such things as time, snow or the foundations of truth.
In his 1946 essay about Politics and the English language, George Orwell put forward a similar notion, in that thought can corrupt language and each regurgitation of language corrupts thought. This is why certain euphemisms embed themselves in a culture, like dead civilians becoming “collateral damage” and people forced to work in sweatshops or carry an assault rifle in a child army are “exploited persons” instead of slaves. It’s a way of rationalizing the horrific, thereby making it something we can accept as normal. And, according to the man who coined the term newspeak, it “anaesthetizes a portion of one's brain.”
In modern politics, the very nature of trying to debate objective reality has become a multiple-choice game between differing ideologies, wherein facts are suspect and the patently absurd is given equal-time. Rationalizing deceit has given way to prettier terms like “spin.” In the middle of it all is a news media too afraid to call a lie a lie, and puppets every word spoken without analysis or commentary in a bold headline.
And that seems to be important, since our soon-to-be new president is a proven liar.
About nine years ago, a trial judge in Nebraska made some headlines when he forbid both the prosecution and the alleged victim in a rape case from using the term “rape” or “sexual assault” at trial. The defense’s argument, which many courts accept, is that using those terms are legal judgments which are prejudicial to a fair trial. Instead, a prosecution can only present the details and elements of a rape, without ever using the word. But others argue it perpetuates a society which diminishes rape, while creating a situation where alleged rape victims can’t say they were “raped” when they testify in a rape trial. In the Nebraska case, the only word allowed to describe the actions involved was “sex.”
And this sort of thing is not isolated just to the criminal justice system.
If you kill a person, you're a murderer. If you steal, no one would hesitate to call you a thief. But in America, when you force yourself on someone sexually, some people will jump through flaming hoops not to call you a rapist.
As reported by Al Jazeera America, colleges across the country are replacing the word "rape" in their sexual assault policies with "non-consensual sex" because schools don't want label students "rapists".
Brett Sokolow of the National Center for Higher Education Risk – the consultant and lawyer behind this reprehensible shift – says that hearing boards are "squeamish" about hearing or using the word, even for students actually found guilty of raping their classmates.
This became an issue for the news media in the aftermath of the Brock Turner case, when certain organizations refused to call him a rapist in their reports. The argument put forward by TIME and others was a semantic one which relied on a strict reading of statute, in which because Turner had not used his penis to penetrate his victim, they couldn’t technically call him a “rapist.”
It’s in this same sort of vein, news organizations have been arguing and struggling among themselves over the words “lie” and “liar” for the better part of a year, given Donald Trump’s difficulty with the truth. Especially now, after a year where journalists decided ratings was more important than issues, and given the criticism the media has become stenographers who trumpet everything Trump says in a headline or on-screen chyron, even when they know it’s not true or there’s no evidence to support it. As in the above instances of debates about “rapist,” some news organs claim the word “lie” is too judgmental and goes beyond objectivity.
This issue was renewed over the weekend when the editor of the Wall Street Journal said he would be averse to using the term “lie” in covering the Trump administration.
Wall Street Journal editor Gerard Baker said that despite the fact Trump often makes “questionable” and “challengeable” statements, he’s instructed his staff to keep their social media postings straight laced in order to maintain the trust of the readers.
Asked by host Chuck Todd whether he’d be willing to call out a falsehood as a “lie” like some other news outlets have done, Baker demurred, saying it was up to the newspaper to just present the set of facts and let the reader determine how to classify a statement.
"I'd be careful about using the word, ‘lie.’ ‘Lie' implies much more than just saying something that's false. It implies a deliberate intent to mislead,” Baker said, noting that when Trump claimed “thousands” of Muslims were celebrating on rooftops in New Jersey on 9/11, the Journal investigated and reported that they found no evidence of a claim.
"I think it's then up to the reader to make up their own mind to say, 'This is what Donald Trump says. This is what a reliable, trustworthy news organization reports. And you know what? I don't think that's true.’ I think if you start ascribing a moral intent, as it were, to someone by saying that they've lied, I think you run the risk that you look like you are, like you’re not being objective,” he said.
Of course, the contention WSJ is doing this to “maintain the trust of their readers” could be rephrased as not alienating the Republicans who have subscriptions to their newspaper and website. The backlash from Republicans against Candy Crowley, after she interjected in the 2012 debates to correct Mitt Romney when he was demonstrably wrong, is an example of how facts sometimes don’t matter and words lose their meaning.
That same conservative outrage was exhibited whenThe New York Times declared they would start labeling some of Trump’s statements “lies” if they fit a certain criteria.
■ The term “lie” will not be used for matters of opinion, but only when the facts are demonstrably clear.
■ A “lie” is only a lie if it can be clearly discerned whether the misstatement of facts was intentional.
■ The term lie cannot be used to “police more frivolous disputes among political candidates or political factions.”
However, NPR has refused to use the term “lie,” arguing that if they use the term people will stop listening to them. Michael Oreskes, NPR’s vice president of news, used John Adams and the Boston Massacre as examples in defending the organization’s decision to not call a lie a lie.
We want everyone to listen to us and read us. We want our reporting to reach as many people as possible. It is a well-established piece of social science research that if you start out with an angry tone and say something a listener disagrees with, they will tune out the facts.
But if you present the facts calmly and without a tone of editorializing you substantially increase the chance that people will hear you out and weigh the facts. That is why the tone of journalism matters so much. We need potential listeners and readers to believe we are presenting the facts honestly, and not to confirm our opinions.
When one can’t say what they mean, many times it leaves in doubt whether they mean what they say. And this lack of specificity and meaning in how we communicate bleeds over into everything. Just as Orwell said, language corrupts thought, and thought corrupts language.
Two years ago, the Associated Press changed how they characterized people who challenged the science and ideas behind climate change. The AP decided that “climate change denier” was too prejudicial, since it sounds similar to “Holocaust denier,” while “climate change skeptic” doesn’t fit either since skepticism implies the use of legitimate inquiry and scientific investigation. And critics of climate change don’t have a lot of legitimate science on their side.
So the AP decided on “climate change doubter” in order to find a fine line in accommodating a bunch of crackpots and non-scientists who are wrong.