By Richard Terrell
Professor of Art Emeritus, Doane University
There is much drooling panic and ridicule responding to Kellyanne Conway’s use of the expression “alternative facts” in an interview concerning the Trump inauguration proceedings, audience, etc. I am genuinely puzzled as to why there is such an explosive indignation and (arguably) mental derangement over this particular expression.
In fact (if I may use that expression) we all have employed the concept in normal discourse, although not specifically in Conway’s verbal construct. Society generally embraces the truisms that “there are two sides to every story,” that there is “another side of the coin,” or, to remember Paul Harvey, “the rest of the story.” And how many times have you heard some person, while interviewed about a particular issue, employ the phrase “the fact of the matter is” while attempting to counter a particular perspective or argument? This approach is employed widely across the political spectrum; it is not exclusive to left or right.
To resort to a cliché—we all do it. Indeed, it’s at the core of what agencies like Snopes do (or claim to do). So what is really going on here?
First, there is a clever sleight-of-hand action, in which a reference to an “alternative fact” is equated with the concept of “lie.” But this is arbitrary. Everyone knows that there are, indeed, “alternative facts.” Crime investigators employ them all the time in attempts to get to the true story. Two witnesses may seem to be describing the same activity in very different terms, but it does not mean that one is lying and the other is exclusively truthful. Recognition that there are alternative facts is necessary to any rational pursuit of truth.
Let us consider a world-shaking example of alternative fact in the arena of science. Around the turn of the twentieth century, the “consensus” of science was that physical science was “settled.” Everything we knew seemed to confirm the ultimate and final truth of Newtonian physics. Then along came the revolutionary discoveries and theories of quantum physics and we knew otherwise. In essence, Newtonian physics seems contradictory and “false” in light of quantum physics, but that isn’t really true. It all depends on perspective. Newtonian physics works in the normal operative world we live in day to day. The concept of “solidity” makes sense there. It just doesn’t apply to sub-atomic reality. In fact (heh!), the whole history of science itself is a record of exploring and eventually accepting “alternative facts.” The same applies to history and many other areas of human understanding.
My sense of what is happening now is that the panicked anti-Trumpers in media and entertainment are looking for any excuse to engage in what they do best—i.e. misrepresent and ridicule. These are people who got out-smarted by a guy they considered to be a comical dufus with bad hair, and whose candidate was alleged to be a very smart woman. It grates that she got out-smarted by Ms. Conway, who brilliantly conceived a plan to bring the Trump campaign to victory according to the election system that actually counted—electoral college victory measuring community expression over a raw individualistic majority. For that, Conway must be “Palinized,” made the object of ridicule, hate-speech, and subjected to the typical Democratic Party process of dehumanization.
It’s what they do. But if you want to save 15% on car insurance, go to GEICO.