“All you have to do is write one true sentence,” Ernest Hemingway said. “Write the truest sentence you know.”
Once upon a time, this may have been easy. On the other hand, maybe it was never easy to write true words and to form true sentences. To write objectively about the truth becomes considerably easier when you know what the truth is. There are, naturally, some barriers to knowing the truth. Our own biases can prevent us from believing the truth, even if it’s right in front of us. And, of course, being presented with a truth in the first place requires someone else (or something else) to recognize that truth.
If you’ve been following politics at all over the last month or so, you’ll probably know where I’m headed with this. Two words, spoken almost a month ago and now so widely known that they have their own Wikipedia page, have had a tremendous impact on discussions of truth, lies, and everything in between. Because, apparently, there is something in between truth and lies: “Alternative facts.” These were the words Kellyanne Conway spoke in defence of Donald Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer two days after Trump’s Inauguration.
As writers, journalists, humans, how are we supposed to write the truest sentences we know, when it’s not even clear what is a fact and what is an alternative fact? Sometimes, it’s obvious what is true and what isn’t. But more and more these days, the lines are blurring. Let’s say that Trump says something that is false (can you imagine?). Many of his supporters may believe him. Many others may not. Some people believe that Trump is telling the truth, even if there is evidence which suggests otherwise.
In this scenario, which has been playing out on a daily basis, the truth sometimes gets lost. What facts can back up is no longer seen as the truth; rather, what plays to people’s ideological biases is what is seen as the truth. Trump’s Muslim-majority travel ban, though struck down by the courts, is a perfect example of this. Although people from the countries he targeted have killed zero people in America, fear-mongering, Islamophobia, and xenophobia have caused many Americans (some surveys say the majority of Americans) to support his ban.
If a group of people believe a false statement, it doesn’t automatically become true. If everyone in the world suddenly decided that the sky was green, the sky would still be blue, in a literal sense. But if everyone believed the sky was green, then the truth that it is actually blue wouldn’t matter because everyone had constructed their own reality to live in. Again, this is playing out on a frightening scale in America.
Fake facts are nothing new, relatively speaking. Google “Lies about vaccines” and you see multiple perspectives on mistruths; either that the vaccine industry, and the mainstream media, are lying about the benefits of vaccines, or that people who are anti-vaccine are lying. The facts each “side” of the policy debate use ultimately shape their movement’s views. This raises a question: Can there only be one set of correct, objective facts? Most mathematically-minded people would say yes. But this would mean that millions of people, in America and around the world, live their lives based on complete lies — and some of these people might not even care.
The truth about alternative facts is this: They’re not harmless statements that warrant laughter and a trending hashtag. Alternative facts are real symptoms of Trump’s war on the media, on democracy, on human rights. And they are real signs that his administration is not going to succumb to reason or facts, but rather continue to pick and choose information to suit their misguided needs.
This is what I believe. That, to me, these are true sentences. But what is frightening about all of this is that it seems like some of what Trump is saying is what Hemingway would call “the truest sentence he (Trump) knows.” He truly believes the things he says, and even if he doesn’t believe all of it, a quick glance at social media shows that a lot of his supporters believe him.
So, enough of alternative facts. Here’s a real one: as this week’s Time cover predicts, there is a storm coming — for America, and for Trump. Read the weather forecasts carefully. Truth no longer carries the weight Hemingway believed it did, or hoped it would. How can it, when so many people accept “alternative facts” as the truth?