OnWords: Post-Fact World

Dec 27, 2016

The term “post-fact world” is gaining frightening currency these days.

The idea here is that facts no longer matter in public discourse, that people can say whatever they want, and if something reinforces what people think, they’ll believe it, no matter the evidence to back it up.

At issue is not just how we communicate with one another, but whether or not language is really able to carry straightforward meaning.

Some linguists argue that the meaning of words is carried by their relationship to one another, not their relationship to the world, and even the most vivid description of an object or event is already at one remove from reality.

The question then becomes not how words mean but why we imbue some words with the confidence that we could, if we wanted to, go out and verify them with our own eyes and ears.

To answer that question, we have to look at the social value of a set of words: if the same words come from news sources that we already think are biased, we’re likely to dismiss them as some kind of propaganda.

If they come from sources we already trust, we’re likely to assume they’re factual.

It’s not that we live in a post-fact world, but that words have always been subject to who we believe has the authority to express facts.

Paraphrasing George Orwell, all facts are equal, but some words are more equal than others.