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Truth Decay



"Pick some words," says the beery college professor in Thomas Pynchon's novel The Crying of Lot 49. "Them, we can talk about."

What could fuel a livelier conversation—religion and politics notwithstanding?

Them are easy to pick in December because the dictionary companies do the winnowing and choose a Word of the Year (WOTY). Says Oxford Dictionary about the deliberations: "Every year, we choose a winner that is judged to reflect the ethos, mood or preoccupations of that particular year and to have lasting potential as a word of cultural significance."

Them are usually words worth talking about, I find.

Collins Dictionary's 2020 WOTY is "lockdown." The noun was coined in 1973 to describe a temporary, doors-locked restriction imposed on prison inmates in emergencies. This year, countless people have had their workaday lives constrained by lockdowns designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. People are feeling imprisoned and resentful.

Shortlisted by Collins this year were "BLM" and "coronavirus." The latter's subset includes "flattening the curve," "herd immunity" and "super-spreader"—all of which were scratched in the wet concrete of collective memory. Trump's lame "Kung flu" will be forgotten, however. Adjectives "rigged" or "stolen" will never again modify the noun "election." Still, the cult of personality that is Trumpism has given us plenty to remember: "stable genius," "covfefe" and "MAGA" (cribbed from Ronald Reagan) to name a few. Who can forget Kellyanne Conway's "alternative facts" dodge? Or Sarah Sanders' assertion that truthfulness was irrelevant in Trump's anti-Muslim tweeting because "the threat is real"? Biased spin is expected in the White House Briefing Room, but Conway and Sanders go beyond the pale. They devalue truth. The Trump spokeswomen learned from their boss to dissemble, to use words as a warplane uses chaff to confuse radar.

Not to be confused here, alternate facts and untruthful tweets are symptoms. The disease is Truth Decay, and it is more insidious than COVID-19.

You can find evidence of Truth Decay (the subject of a book by Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael Rich) in the WOTY selections over the years. In 2005 the American Dialect Society chose "truthiness," a coinage of Stephen Colbert's, as the WOTY. Merriam-Webster made the same choice a year later. Truthiness springs from the conviction that something is true because it seems to be true, irrespective of factual evidence. It is often on display in such Republican redoubts as the Utah Legislature.

In 2016, the Oxford Dictionary picked "post-truth" as its WOTY. The adjective was defined as relating to a circumstance in which an appeal to emotion or personal belief is more influential than facts and logic in shaping opinion. Sean Hannity, Rudy Giuliani and their ilk are practiced, post-truth pundits. Demagoguery is in the saddle and is riding mankind. The ugly truth of "post-truth," however, is the cynical calculation at its core: Avoid truth if disinformation advances your cause.

Truth Decay took a turn for the worse when Trump began to rail against "fake news." He used the epithet so often that both Collins and the American Dialect Society recognized "fake news" as the 2017 WOTY. The real news was that Trump was a fount of fake news—cause for alarm in and of itself. It is one thing to dismiss unflattering reports with a "fake news" label, it is quite another to employ "fake news" as a post-truth tactic. Trump has promulgated falsehood and disinformation more than 22,000 times in the last four years, according to weary fact checkers, a recent spike being attributable to "rigged election." Said Texas Sen. Ted Cruz before he chugged the Trump Kool-Aid: "He lies practically every word that comes out of his mouth. And he had a pattern that I think is straight out of a psychology textbook. His response is to accuse everybody else of lying."

Or to accuse such states as Georgia and Pennsylvania of conducting "the most corrupt election in the history of our country." Engaging the gears of the post-truth machinery, Trump asserted that his loss at the ballot box was prima facie evidence of fraudulent voting.

Georgia's initial recount of the 5 million ballots cast in the November election found miscounts in four of 159 counties. Correcting the errors gave Trump a net gain of 1,200 votes, according to Georgia's Republican secretary of state. Those are the facts. The cause of the miscounts? Not human error, say Trump lawyers, but a conspiracy that included Venezuelans tampering with voting machines. The Justice Department disagreed, but a majority of Republicans believed Trump and forked over $170 million to investigate voter fraud.

Love him or hate him, you have to concede that Trump has accelerated Truth Decay. Will you also concede that the president of the U.S. ought to be known as a paragon of truthfulness?

Truth Decay is an alarming phenomenon that evokes George Orwell's dystopian novels. Our public discourse is being deliberately distorted by the counterfactual. Emotion—usually fear—often surpasses reason. Alternate facts and conspiracy theories circulate on the internet gaining strength like a hurricane over warm water. The pandemic (Merriam-Webster's 2020 WOTY) was a turning point: Truth Decay became potentially lethal. A lot of people believed the president when he called COVID-19 "a fake news media conspiracy." In crowded hospitals, people died from a virus they believed was fakery.

After the Georgia recount, Gabriel Sterling, a Republican election official, implored Trump to stop his baseless attacks on the integrity of the election. To persist is to "inspire people to commit potential acts of violence," Sterling said. "It has to stop."

It just has to stop.

Them—the words—we should talk about until respect for truth is restored.

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