Saturday, February 4, 2017

Truth Trumped: NPR vs. the Parrot on Presidential Prevarications


A little philosophy, a bit of controversy, a smidgeon of memoir... in short, another one of my 3000-word essays passing itself off as a blog post, and no more up-to-the-minute than the others. But while one might uncharitably call this blog "The Untimely Wisdom of H.A. Monk" - or perhaps "The Tardy Parrot's Soapbox" ("Anton's Antiquated Articles" seems a bit hypercritical) I do at least insist that the issues we deal with are of more enduring interest, and therefore addressed in more depth, than the average bit of 140-character fluff that even serves as "news" for major media these days.

It may have reached your innocent ears that President Donald Trump, has – prepare yourself – been accused of stating things that are not true. Naturally, one would infer that either the man has been misinformed at times, or else he would not register as an object of interest in front of Diogenes lantern.

Some news organizations, including the NY Times, have taken to using the word "lies" to characterize some of Trump's statements. This, mind you, is the same staid news organization that refuses to print the word [expletive], even as a direct quote, when hundreds or thousands of other media outlets do so. If the Times can refer to the man's "lies", you would think, so could any other news outlet that is not some mainstream conservative rag.

Not so fast. Recently, the illustrious National [semi-]Public Radio, refuge of liberals across the nation from the superficial chatter of commercial radio, was embroiled in controversy over an instruction from news chief Michael Oreskes not to use the word "lie" to characterize Trump's, er, "alternative facts", because we lack the ability to known if Trump had an "intent to deceive" when he uttered them.

Here comes the memoir... It has been my great fortune to occasionally be able to share with my devoted readers some personal experiences with people in the news, and here once again I note such a glorious opportunity. I went to school with Mike Oreskes for six years, through junior high and then high school. He was in my circle of friends, but to call him a "friend" unequivocally would be way more open to question than calling Trump a "liar" unequivocally.

Among other things, Mike at some point became close friends with someone who I and others regarded as the class bully, a diminutive but pugnacious individual named Louis Nathanson. I vaguely recollect having written about this before, so I won't go into every detail, just the relevant ones, as I recall them. (Fact-checkers please note: a memoir is a memoir, not a research project; its guiding ethical principle is to state the facts as you truly remember them. I aver that what I have to say passes that test.)

One day I was sitting at a table in the lunchroom with a group of people I knew. To my right, perhaps not my immediate right but nearby, was Michael. Further to the right was Louis Nathanson. There was some movement back and forth as people got up for one reason or another. Now, Louis had taken to harassing me some time before this, but the harassment up to that point was too petty and stupid for me to recall any of the details. But as I sat there that day I suddenly found myself eating a piece of frosted cake that I did not order. I was not only eating but breathing it, for someone had passed behind me and jammed it into my face. I looked around to see Louis Nathanson taking a seat at the far right end of the table.

How is any of this relevant to Donald Trump and his prevarications? (Is that word okay with all you J-school graduates?) Well, after wiping the butter cream and crumbs off my face as best I could, after some consideration I got up with a container of milk in my hand and headed toward the right to return the compliment. Before I could get to Louis I had to pass Mike. As I said, I'm not going to give every detail, just the relevant ones. Oreskes saw me about to pass and asked me a question: "Did you see who did that to you?" I was taken aback. Did I "see" something as it happened behind me, through the eyes in the back of my head, as it were? What was the point of this rhetorical question, when there was literally only one person in the entire school, to say nothing of the table, who would commit such an unprovoked act of hostility against me? I can't recall my exact answer, but Mike's next question was, roughly: "Well, if you didn't see it, where are you going with that milk?"

Like I said, I'm leaving out details, but I did not end up confronting Louis, and went to the Vice Principal instead. Apparently my cleanup job had been far from complete, for he looked at me and asked, "Who did this to you?" Louis was called to his office, lied (with intent to deceive, indeed!) and was given nothing more than a warning, though he was a known quantity to the administration by that point.

Perhaps between the ages of 13 (roughly) and 62 people don't change in certain ways. No, I'm not suggesting that Mike would have any sympathy with bullies today; hopefully a few decades of consciousness-raising about that issue has generated at least a moderate sense of contrition about his relationship with Louis Nathanson, which went far beyond the lunch table. But his demand for an impossible, and under the circumstances unnecessary, verifying observation on my part seems to match point for point the demand for an impossible, and unnecessary, verifying view into Trump's intentional states. In both cases, an unfortunate dodge is being made to protect something, at the expense of raw honesty.

Now, I have done my due diligence and listened to a variety of recent statements and interviews with Oreskes, and I have to say that overall he does not sound like someone who is trying to whitewash Trump's bullshit (more on that word later). He sounds like someone caught between a rock and a hard place, trying to protect the objectivity, such as it is, of a (partially) publicly funded media organization that is at maximum risk of losing its public funding under the current administration. He made a telling comment about the use of the word "liar" when he suggested that it turns people off: "I think the minute you start branding things with a word like 'lie,' you push people away from you." As the Daily Kos commented, "Oreskes appears to confuse truth telling with maintaining audience share and/or White House access". Circle the wagons, try to avoid the inevitable. Trump has been quite clear about wanting to defund everything from NPR to the NEA. Put a boor in the White House and a bunch of rightwing zealots just about everywhere else in D.C. and culture is on the chopping block for sure. Finding watered-down substitutes for "lie" ("untruth" etc.) will not change that, though you have to kind of sympathize with the last-ditch effort.

But that does not settle the philosophical question, does it? What is with this "intent to deceive" condition? Some people have become irate at the very suggestion of this criterion, alleging that it makes "lying" an empty concept, since intentions are by nature private. This is a misunderstanding.

First, the "intent to deceive" clause is a necessary component of the definition of lying. Why? Consider a weaker definition: "Making a statement that is in fact false, and which you know to be false." That sounds like a lie, right? And it dispenses with intent entirely. But is it sound? Of course not; otherwise every author of a fictional work, and every actor as well, would be a liar. "Well," you want to say, "these are secondary uses of language; if you limit the definition to ordinary communications it's fine." But there are various uses of language in which adherence to factual truth is not a norm, but which we don't characterize as lying. True, sometimes you are just playing a role. But you may be trying something out without committing to it. You might say something false because you want the other party to deny it. There might be a prior understanding between two parties that some falsehoods will be uttered. (Think, for example, of the possible verbal communications during certain kinds of consensual sex acts.) A metaphor is a literally false statement that is intended to convey something true. None of these uses of language involve the intent to deceive, and they are not lying.

Lying is a moral category. Under the right circumstances you can state falsehoods without crossing any moral lines. This is why the "intent to deceive" condition is necessary. There are, to my knowledge, just two extended philosophical works on lying:
one is called Subjects of Deceit: A phenomenology of Lying. Though the book seems to do without a definition of lying, you can already tell from the title that it takes lying to involve an intent to deceive. The other, more standard work is Sissela Bok's Lying, in which you find on page 13: "I shall define as a lie any intentionally deceptive message which is stated." The same requirement (re: lying) is offered, in passing, in Harry Frankfurt's essay "On Bullshit". Thus there appears to be no philosophical source on lying that fails to find "intent to deceive" to be a necessary part of the definition.

It is true that you could avoid it by coming up with ad hoc exceptions for every instance of false utterance (or inscription) that is not normally called "lying"; or with a global rule like "we will call every use of language that involves stating falsehoods without the intent to deceive 'role-playing'". The former method loses any force in the definition due to the need for ad hoc exceptions, and the latter of course begs the question against the intent condition.

So does this mean that after all is said and done, the wing├Ęd blogger agrees with his old pal of sorts? (I mean, we did spend many a better moment playing touch football, and participating in protests against the war in Vietnam, among other things.) Not just yet. What most of the critics have overlooked so far is that determining "intent" is not, in our normal use of language, a matter of peering into someone's brain, having them submit to psychological testing, or the like. It is a social judgment that is made on a variety of grounds, based on the circumstances. Let NPR have the OED definition with its "intent to deceive". Who says we can't be certain, within reasonable parameters, of Trump's intent?

Let's consider the circumstances: he certainly has access to the facts; and while no intelligent life form would accuse him of being a genius, he is certainly capable of understanding the basis of the facts and reasoning involved in, say, the crowd estimates at his inauguration or why illegal voters could not alter an election result by nearly 3 million votes. Furthermore, he has an interest in stating the facts to be other than they are. Rational understanding plus self-interest: that sounds very much like evidence of an intent to deceive, don't you think?

Ah, but what if he actually believes his own false statements? For you have to disbelieve your own statement in order for it to be a lie. Recall the inadequate definition we began with: it included the condition that you know that your claim is false. This is not sufficient for a definition, but it is a necessary component of it. But if you know it is false, then you also believe it is false. (Statements of the form "I know that P but I don't believe it" are characterized as "Moore's Paradox", after the early 20th century philosopher G.E. Moore.) So if you believe it is true then it can only be an error, not a lie.

People who truly believe what is generally known to be false, or disbelieve what is known to be true, and have no special basis or unique insights that account for their atypical viewpoints, are generally called either stupid or delusional. Again, I don't number Trump among the MENSA crowd. But, on the other hand, it is a frightening thought that our President is delusional. It is more frightening than the thought that our President is a liar, or our President is a hypocrite, or our President is a bullshit artist. For if he is truly delusional he cannot be any of those things, since he does not have the grasp of reality that is required to be confounding it in these ways.

So is he delusional? He is certainly an unbelievably narcissistic individual, who will grasp at any opportunity whatsoever to promote himself and build himself up. The photos show that no one came to your party? They're doctored. The results show that you lost the popular vote badly? The voters were illegal immigrants. Scientists all agree that global warming is caused by greenhouse gases? It's a Chinese hoax to gain energy dominance over us. Your statements about the security agencies have damaged your relationship with them? The press made it all up! Does Trump actually believe this nonsense? It does, at times, sound very much like he is delusional.

I am inclined to say that Donald Trump has a set of core beliefs about himself and the world and that not only does he continue to believe them in the face of massive contrary evidence, but he is susceptible to almost any argument in support of them, however absurd, making all the ancillary facts connected with this worldview highly resistant to contrary evidence. If not completely delusional on every count, he is open to being deluded, and in fact solicits self-deluding input from his inner circle, who graciously comply with "alternative facts".

So here is the challenge for Michael Oreskes and NPR, and for every other news organization as well: if Trump is not lying he is surely delusional, and that is what you should be writing. You don't want to say he "lied' about the election (and so many other things... we have all lost count) - so then say he is "deluded" about it. You don't want to say he is a "liar"? Then say he is "delusional". In doing so, you are making a judgment that in fact he does not exhibit an "intent to deceive" and in fact believes the utter garbage that he spews forth. If you think it is more likely that he does not believe it, then what do you think he is doing other than trying to deceive people? Come up with a more credible hypothesis than the one that says he is lying to deceive people so he can continue his self-aggrandizing trip through history.

Now let me address one last issue. I suggested that my childhood incident with Mike Oreskes demonstrated a willingness on his part to back up some closely held position with a demand for contrary evidence that is necessarily not available, and that this same trait is shown in his recent policy decision not to call Trump a liar. But then I also said that there actually is reasonable evidence that Trump had "intent to decieve" in many of his false claims. So is the problem simply that Mike doesn't realize the evidence is available? Unfortunately, he later "clarified" NPR's position by suggesting that evidence of Trump's intent would be made clear if a falsehood was repeated often enough. But Trump has every bit of information he needs in the first place to see that his statements are false. Repetition does not have anything at all to do with intent here. So rather than adopt the straightforward position that Trump already had available all the relevant facts and arguments at the outset and is therefore simply a liar, he has put up yet another illogical demand, in the alleged service of journalistic integrity. Trump stated the birther garbage about Obama over and over again in the face of direct contrary evidence; is he a liar or isn't he? The rest of his bullshit is equally suited to an Orwellian world where black is white; do we have to wait a few years to say so?

Let me close with one more bit of philosophical linguistics. Harry Frankfurt, whose essay "On Bullshit" I cited above, is a philosopher for whose philosophy in general I am not overburdened with sympathy, and his philosophical analysis of the term "bullshit" is one of several reasons for that. But while his bullshit project is flawed, it does have at least the merit of courageously plunging into the obscure world of deceitful discourse. Since I have used the term "bullshit" more than once here to describe Trump's statements, one question we might ask is whether anything more or less than this is needed to accurately portray the ethical qualities of his utterances.


Frankfurt's definition of "bullshit" turns on the idea that the bullshitter's discourse displays a lack of concern for the truth – not that he necessarily lies, or necessarily intends to deceive us about reality, but he intends to deceive us about the fact that he accepts no responsibility to accurately reflect reality. Now I am not convinced that there is a univocal use of "bullshit", nor even that the particular use that Frankfurt discusses is a paradigmatic one. But insofar as there is a type of utterance that is simply unconcerned with accuracy, is this the term we should be using to describe Trumpspeak (or Trumptweet)? Is he neither an outright liar nor a deluded  ignoramus but a bullshitter who will say what is true or what is not so long as it serves his purpose? 

Here I would say we meet one of those crossroads in language where we can have no clear indication that one way is better than the other. For given that what serves Trump's purposes is almost always at odds with reality, if we accept that Trump is willing to deceive us when it is in his interest to do so, it seems largely an academic matter whether we say that he is unconcerned with the truth – that he bullshits us, in Frankfurt's restricted sense - or that he lies to us. For it is by nature impossible to determine whether someone whose worldview is so utterly divergent from scientific, historical and social fact intends to deceive us about the facts or is unconcerned with them. Frankfurt's bullshitter must be a person whose concept of the real diverges only in part from socially acceptable knowledge claims. But Trump time and time again conveys as information about the world what most rational people take to be clear falsehoods. This, as I said above, suggests a man who is either a sadly deluded mental incompetent, or a garden variety liar.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ian here. Excellent (if somewhat "dense" and "windy") piece. ;-)

You say that Mike clarified his statement by saying that, "...evidence of Trump's intent would be made clear if a falsehood was repeated often enough. But Trump has every bit of information he needs in the first place to see that his statements are false. Repetition does not have anything at all to do with intent here."

I agree that repetition has nothing to do with intent. However, whether it is a lie, "falsehood," half-truth, etc., the repetition of it has a very specific intent: "Repeat a lie often enough, and it becomes the truth."

The source for that (in)famous quote is Lenin, Hitler, or Goebbels (depending on one's source) - but it comes from a propagandist in any case. This was understood by Karl Rove and Dick Cheney, and is equally (if not more) understood by Steve Goebbels-Bannon, and by Der Furor himself (which he knows from the success of his "birther"...lie).