[Ads-l] "Alternative facts" for EOTY

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Mon Jan 23 07:15:43 EST 2017

Perhaps it is worth repeating a saying that goes back at least to 1975 (with several precursors reported to this list by Garson):

At a conference in Washington DC on December 2, 1975, in a debate on
comparing the military power of the US and the USSR, with Daniel P. Moynihan
participating, James R. Schlesinger said:

I think that we might well have a debate on the facts. We have had much
talk in this country in recent years, quite justly, about deception. I think our
greatest problem may be self-deception. Everybody is entitled to his
own views; everybody is not entitled to his own facts.

Page 100 in Pacem in Terris IV, vol. 1, American-Soviet Detente, Peace and
National Security, ed. Fred Warner Neal, published 1976, Fund for Peace
and the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.

Stephen Goranson


From: American Dialect Society <...> on behalf of Baker, John <...>
Sent: Sunday, January 22, 2017 11:27 PM
To: ...
Subject: Re: [ADS-L] "Alternative facts" for EOTY

Well, what did Kellyanne Conway mean?    Here's the relevant passage, from https://urldefense.proofpoint.com/v2/url?u=http-3A__www.nbcnews.com_meet-2Dthe-2Dpress_meet-2Dpress-2D01-2D22-2D17-2Dn710491-3A&d=CwIGaQ&c=imBPVzF25OnBgGmVOlcsiEgHoG1i6YHLR0Sj_gZ4adc&r=uUVa-8oDL2EzfbuMuowoUadHHcJ7pjul6iFkS5Pd--8&m=JQ6gF-2rx5-thH4vFE57SPJl3udkaUTSjmKy8TG9_TE&s=hk33fjCUKd54aR0Jj6-DvImWVMWLI4GU7oRWLEfv_GQ&e=


You did not--


Yes I did.


--answer the question of why the president asked the White House press secretary to come out in front of the podium for the first time and utter a falsehood? Why did he do that? It undermines the credibility of the entire White House press office--


No it doesn't.


--on day one.


Don't be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. What-- You're saying it's a falsehood. And they're giving Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.>>

(It will probably be easier to construe that last sentence if you understand it to contain dashes:  "And they're giving--Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave--alternative facts to that.")

Conway used the phrase again a little later in the program, although it's broken by an interruption from Todd:


Can you please answer the question? Why did he do this? You have not answered it.


I'll answer--


It's only one question.


--it this way. I'll answer it this way. Think about what you just said to your viewers. That's why we feel compelled to go out and clear the air and put alternative--


So it's a political tactic?


--facts out there.


It's a political tactic to come up with alternative facts and try to set up the press as your enemy?


No I didn't say that at all. And that's not why I'm here in this building. I'm here because of all the provable, quantifiable facts, because of the devastation and destruction in our schools with our health care, in our economy, with our small business owners.>>

I can think of three things that Conway might have meant:

1.      She could have meant a sort of fantasy interpretation in which, shall we say, fictional facts are as valid as factual facts.  In other words, as Wilson suggests, alternative facts are simply lies.  That seems to be how the phrase is being taken generally, but it's an unlikely meaning for her to have.

2.      She could have meant that Spicer was presenting an alternative version of the facts that arguably was based on evidence as good or better than the evidence supporting the facts reported by the press.  This presumably is how Spicer himself would describe what he was doing (although the evidence for his "facts" does not stand up to scrutiny).

3.      She could have meant that Spicer was presenting other facts that are arguably more important than the facts reported by the press and that arguably cast those facts in a different light.  Conway's references to health care, the economy, and small business owners suggest that this may be what she thought she was saying.

Regardless of what Conway actually meant, of course, the public is going to think that alternative facts = lies.  And since both Spicer and Conway seem to be trading in falsehoods, that's an understandable view.

Whether or not "alternative facts" turns out to have legs as a WOTY candidate, I think we already have an early entry on Fred's list of the quotes of the year.

John Baker


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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