In Lewis Carroll’s Alice through the looking glass Humpty-Dumpty delivers this famous line: “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” Alice replied: “he question is whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
I think this notion that anyone can say anything they like and have it mean what they want, irrespective of any kind of external standard of meaning, is being played out today in the phenomenon of ‘alternative facts’ (which used to be called ‘lies’ when I was growing up).
Sometimes the delivery of these ‘facts’ is not really important, amounting to little more than immature bloviating and political grandstanding. At times there is some humour, perhaps unintended, in claims that are patently false and easily falsifiable. Examples would include President Trump’s insistence that the crowds at his inauguration were the biggest in history despite clear evidence to the contrary.
Unfortunately the promotion of ‘alternative facts’ can have a very dangerous effect on public dialogue and debate on serious issues. This includes terrorism and you can’t get much more serious than that as an issue. When fake data – or more likely no data – is put forward as fact, the field becomes muddy, analysis suffers, responses are inadequate and we are much worse off. The sad truth is that none of this is necessary, let alone helpful.
The most recent egregious example of lies posing as reality occurred a month ago, although reports are just surfacing now. Dutch politician Geert Wilders, well known for his platinum blond hair and over-the-top Islamophobia and anti-immigrant stance, told a German TV programme that Pim Fortuyn, another Islamophobic Dutch politician, had been killed by a ‘radical Muslim’ back in 2002. Problem: he was killed by an environmental and animal rights activist – in other words a Dutch leftie.
Mr. Wilders later said he was thinking of the murder of Theo van Gogh, who was indeed killed by an Islamist extremist, Mohamed Bouyeri, on an Amsterdam street in 2004. While Mr. Wilders may truly have mixed up the cases, it is also possible that he made this ‘error’ deliberately to underscore the point he has been making for years, i.e. that the Netherlands is rife with Islamist extremists and that his solution (mass deportation) is the only one.
The ‘alternative facts’ presented by Mr. Wilders are but a sample of what has been said about terrorism of late. The Trump administration is behind a lot of these lies, to wit:
- a Swedish ‘security expert’ (nothing of the sort) alluded to a terrorist attack that did not happen and suggested that his country is experiencing an immigrant-driven crime wave (which it is not)
- Kelly Anne Conway, ‘counsellor’ for the President, referred to the ‘Bowling Green massacre’ perpetrated by Islamist extremists – there is no such incident
- an immigration ban on seven Muslim-dominant countries is necessary to keep the US safe from terrorism: analysis by the US Department of Homeland Security wrote that there is absolutely no evidence to back this up.
And lest we think Canada is immune to the use of ‘alternative facts’ there was the Manning Centre Conference last Friday where a session on Islamist extremism contained more “fearmongering than actual debate” (NB I did not attend the conference and am relying on a journalist’s version of what happened). I am not surprised by this account, however, as one of the presenters was described by the same journalist of having made a statement that was ‘bonkers’.
This is not amusing and inconsequential. It matters. Most people are not experts and do not have the time to look into matters in a detailed fashion, let alone even keep up with the reporting surrounding terrorism. For that we need specialists who spend decades doing so and whose insight and wisdom can help us grasp complicated concepts. When neophytes and self-styled experts pompously declare certain things to be truths when they are not at all, we all suffer. More importantly, civil servants are not immune to the risk of falling for lies (I saw it firsthand while with the Canadian government) and they are the ones that draft policies to deal with menaces like terrorism.
I know that ‘experts’ are not trusted by many these days. That is a shame for many experts have a lot to offer. And as for the fake experts with their ‘alternative facts’, these need to be challenged by real facts and their influence has to be countered. There is too much at stake to let the snake oil salesmen blather unchallenged.