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Alternative Facts and The Politics of Perception

On Saturday, the Trump’s Press Secretary Sean Spicer held a press conference to tell the press that estimates of crowds at the Inauguration were false.  When Chuck Todd asked Kellyanne Conway why the Press Secretary used his first press conference to lie to the press, she said he did not lie, he used “alternative facts.”

Trump himself has repeatedly made claims that are verifiably false.  He claimed that the Democrats had rigged the debates to go up against an NFL game, though the NFL schedule was established after the debates and that the Koch brothers asked for a meeting with him when they did not.  Those are just two examples in a sea of many.  A lot of people are rightfully concerned that the Administration will offer its set of “facts” that are in no way connected to what has happened or what has been said.  These concerns have opened a question about what it means for us to share a reality.  If politics is a matter of sharing a world, this common reality must be established and is not given in advance.  This common reality is fragile.  This common reality is informed by our desires to see the world in a certain way.  It feels like now more than ever we are fighting to establish a common world, but the history of alternative realities constituting American politics is long.

Certain facts are verifiable.  Track them down, find the documentation, publish it to the world.  But many of the things we are fighting over politically are precisely about how we see the world and who we believe in order to see the world as it is.  Much of this has to do with the perspective we occupy.  From where Trump stood on the Capitol steps, for example, looking down the mall, an optical illusion was created that made the whole mall look filled.  Trump tends to think the media underestimates him and his support, which to some extent, they have.  But that has also made him think any resistance is wrong because it is resistance.

I’m arguing that Trump is an extreme example of this practice of believing his own perception without recognizing the factors that contribute to that perception.  This tendency affects all of us and how we see our political world.  For example, whether we perceive the world through a lens of racism and sexism in such a way that keeps us from seeing that there is racism and sexism in the world.

In Nicomachean Ethics III.5, Aristotle argues that we are responsible for the way that the world comes to appear to us:

But suppose someone were to say that all people aim at the apparent good, but they are not in control of how things appear, but rather whatever sort of person each one is, of that sort too does the end appear to anyone.  So if each one were in some way responsible for one’s own active condition [character], then each would be in some way responsible oneself for how things appear, but if not, no one is responsible for wrongdoing by oneself, but does these things through ignorance of the end, believing that by these means one will secure the highest good for oneself.   1114a32-1114b12

Aristotle goes on to argue that we are in fact responsible for how things appear in what follows.  He argues that human beings are responsible for becoming the kinds of people who see the world in certain ways, that we act out of that perception we have of the world, and that we can be held responsible for coming to see it in that way.  I want to suggest that this ethical seeing is what leads people to perceive in the same situation “alternative facts.”  The alternative facts for many people are that women are hysterical and emotional and better off in service or carework and away from positions of leadership.  The alternative facts for many people are that Black people have less wealth because they do not work as hard as white people.  The alternative facts for many people are that undocumented immigrants are less deserving than their ancestors were when they settled in the United States.  The alternative facts for many people are that LGBT people are morally suspect.  There are arguments and evidence to resist these alternative facts–they are not equivalent to the views to which they are the alternative and they need to be harnessed to encourage people to see otherwise.

Lest we think “alternative facts” as a frame that allows for justifying or denying justice, equality and liberty are solely on the side of conservatives, I learned today of a story of women of color at the St. Paul’s women’s march who tried to silence and force a conservative white man at the march yelling anti-Muslim and anti-gay slogans to leave the march area.  White women protected the man who linked arms around him.  The man maced the women of color who were resisting him and then the white women told the women of color, not the man, not to be violent.  The march marshalls called the police who took the man away.  Here’s a story of alternative ways of seeing the world that lead liberal white women to think that the man was not by his presence and his yelling being violent, that lead liberal white women to think that the women of color did not have the freedom to resist as they thought best, that lead liberal white women to think that protecting someone who is being hateful is a better road to justice and freedom.  These white women responded in a way that shows that they had alternative facts for the situation then the women of color did, born out of a sense of who should feel comfortable and what situations constitute comfort.

Official misinformation is a real problem.  But I am wary of the way that describing the introduction of the phrase “alternative facts” as a new problem keeps us from seeing how the United States has long been a place divided over alternative perceptions of how things are.  “Alternative facts” is American history.

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