True Lies and False Truths
Once upon a time, the words we used had dependable and agreed-upon meanings. Words describing people, events, beliefs, acts and other experiences were either facts and truths, or they were fictions and falsehoods.
Lately, though, it’s as if we’re living in a never-never land, where the meanings of words have become misleading and confusing, sometimes by design. Actual facts can be replaced by whims of fancy and fiction, bearing little relation to reality. True statements now have to compete with lies, distortions or conspiracy theories for public acceptance.
As a result, people increasingly are unsure what to believe, and in this situation, oxymorons like “False Truths” and “True Lies” abound. The simultaneous occurrence in an individual of contradictory thoughts and beliefs is referred to as cognitive dissonance. Believing that something stated or written is factual, when it really has a contradictory meaning, can have unsettling effects. When boundaries between reality and fantasy are blurred, people can be confused, anxious or mistrustful.
This, however, is not a novel experience in human history. It was satirized in 1879 by Gilbert and Sullivan in the song, “Things are Seldom as They Seem” in their comic operetta “The Pirates of Penzance.” G & S used comedy as a dramatic device, but their point was that using confusing language to deceive is serious business, and anything but comical.
A hideous example of deceptive language is the infamous sign at the entrance to the Auschwitz Death Camp, where the words “welcoming” arriving Jewish and other victims, were “Arbet Macht Frei” (“Work Will Set You Free”). The Nazis treacherously misused “soft” words to camouflage cruel meanings.
A U.S. Congressional bill put forth in 1954 used the word “Emancipation” of Chippewa and other Native American tribes. The word implied increased rights and freedoms as Americans, but the fine print meant “termination” of Treaties, loss of their lands, and “relocation” of Native Americans from their ancestral lands to cities.
America’s sorry history of racism and slavery involved innumerable duplicitous statements and writings by white politicians expressing attacks couched in words of caring and benevolence.
This sinister communication style was chillingly illustrated in George Orwell’s prophetic novel “1984” (published in 1949), which was a metaphoric warning about a repressive political and social system in a future society. He wrote it after World War 2, during which he witnessed the devious use of language in authoritarian regimes like Germany, Italy, Spain and Japan.
The government Orwell described imposed oppressive controls on its citizens, but the language used implied caring and empathy. He coined the words “doublethink” and “doublespeak” to illustrate familiar words being supplanted by contradictory meanings, conveying exactly their opposite intent.
The government propaganda office was called the “Ministry of Truth,” a camouflage for “Ministry of Disinformation.” Its proclaimed tenets of Truth (lies) declared that Freedom was equivalent to Slavery, War was Love, and Ignorance became Strength.
These double meanings sowed confusion and fear in the population. Cruelty hid in the guise of caring, freedoms were drastically curtailed and dire punishments enforced. Leaders demanded and threatened, police henchmen subdued and arrested, and citizens were frightened and cowed.
We’ve seen examples of ‘doublespeak’ here, where words have been used to express inherent contradictions. Vivid events which we witnessed in person or on screens, like the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the Capital, or the knee on the neck of George Floyd, were “clarified” in benign or beneficial terms. The attacks of hundreds of angry men (mostly) were likened by some politicians to “tourism,” and the police actions which killed Floyd were “following procedure,” and “protective.”
The raging mobs were described by Donald Trump as “good, patriotic, and loving” people, just as he had described the attackers in Charleston.
Factual scientific data have been declared “fake news.” The recent federal election has been called “fixed, fraudulent, or rigged,” in spite of being deemed fair and ratified by independent judicial authorities. Effective vaccines have been called dangerous and toxic.
Official lies which are stated assertively and repeatedly gain credibility with many people who are angry with the status quo. They are most often believed by those who are dissatisfied with their lives, and who feel powerless and socially disconnected. They seek meaning in their lives and want clear answers to nuanced complexities, but their realities are based on misinformation.
Bizarre and toxic conspiracy theories flourish in this particular “soil” of frustration, dissatisfaction and anger. Elaborate interpretations are concocted and believed by zealots, and their preconceived beliefs and biases give them a new sense of meaning in their lives.
The brilliant filmmaker and chronicler of historical events, Ken Burns, has called this “The Human Virus of Lying and Disinformation.” It is as dangerous, toxic and as lethal as the coronavirus and human hatreds of “the other.”
Question: What happens when Doublethink and Doublespeak become when citizens are besieged by words and phrases filled with deceitful ambiguities, and when deliberate pairings of misleading words enter the common vernacular?
Answer: When citizens are uncertain of what is truth and untruth, they become unnerved and anxious, mistrustful of democratic institutions, insecure about safety, and especially vulnerable to lies, conspiracy theories and the entreaties of demagoguery, populism and authoritarianism.
I shudder at this possible outcome here…