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Facts come to the rescue in the age of gaslighting

The ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes has long symbolized the endless search for truth. In our time, that search is as complicated as ever.
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The ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes has long symbolized the endless search for truth. In our time, that search is as complicated as ever.

Distressing world events and the reactive media conversation may have you feeling cynical these days. Or you may prefer what comfort can be found in a more stoic attitude.

Either way, the names of those philosophical reactions date to the age of the ancient Greek philosophers, including one named Diogenes. He died in 323 BCE, and his name remains associated with the Cynics and the Stoics as well. Yet his name survives to our time mostly because legend says he walked the Earth in search of an honest man.

You may have seen him on this hunt, rendered by classical sculptors or more likely caricatured by contemporary cartoonists. He usually has a long beard and a lamp he holds up high as he peers into the murky darkness. In either guise, he has long symbolized the endless search for truth.

In our time, that search is as complicated as ever. Even the idea of truth is disputed; we say the word aloud and add air quotes, or an ironic tone of voice or a smirk. The term has been blithely bandied about by the likes of, for example, the so-called "Truthers" of two decades ago who insisted that no airplanes had crashed into any buildings on Sept. 11, 2001.

Perhaps that is why journalists and other observers often shy away from the word truth and prefer to talk about facts. There are many versions of the truth, many misuses and many disagreements about what it even means. The idea of fact is something we feel better prepared to defend on objective grounds.

Even so, we must deal with those who speak of "alternative facts" as though facts, too, were fungible. Who can forget the day after former President Trump's swearing-in, when a spokesperson used that phrase to describe his utterly false counter-narrative about the size of his inauguration crowd.

One extreme example of "alternative facts" might be the speech Russian President Vladimir Putin gave last week, declaring four regions of Ukraine to be part of Russia by fiat. In justifying this land grab by citing a sham referendum conducted at gunpoint, Putin added yet another egregious episode to his stream of false narratives about Ukraine.

Americans need not, however, feel smug about this. Putin's straining of credulity may not have been any greater than Trump's claims in late 2020, when he insisted he had won an election "by a lot" that he had in fact lost by 7 million votes. It was the most extreme case in the U.S. to date of a behavior that now has a popular name: gaslighting.

The word comes from the 1944 Hollywood movie Gaslight. Ingrid Bergman won the Academy Award playing a young opera singer who doubts her sanity because of a plot to deceive and confuse her. Its one-word title has entered the language as a code word for elaborate lying or treating fictional scenarios as real. It is now common to see it in headlines or hear it on cable TV news. It is surely more familiar to most Americans than the lamp of Diogenes.

Perhaps that is because the insidious deception that gaslighting implies has become a pandemic, like the "massive infodemic" of misinformation that the World Health Organization says came with COVID in 2020.

Opposing "The Big Lie"

There is a kind of audacity in Major Garrett and David Becker titling their book The Big Truth: Upholding Democracy in the Age of the Big Lie. Just published this past week, The Big Truth is a powerful argument against Trump's false claims regarding the outcome of the 2020 election.

The book walks through the still-breathtaking events in the weeks after the November 2020 election. These include the preparation of an executive order dated Dec. 16, 2020, by which Trump was to order the U.S. military "to seize ballot boxes and declare a national emergency – all to preserve his presidency."

Only the integrity and courage of key individuals at various points in the government — especially in the state governments and the courts – frustrated these efforts by Trump and some of his most zealous supporters to delay and ultimately overturn the outcome of that election.

Garrett is the chief Washington correspondent for CBS News and a former senior White House correspondent for Fox News. He has been in Washington nearly four decades. David Becker is an elections expert with many years of experience as a trial attorney in election law at the Department of Justice. He is also the founder and executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation & Research.

At one point in their narrative they quote from their interview with Wyoming Republican Rep. Liz Cheney, the vice chair of the committee investigating the events of Jan. 6, 2021. "I sort of think about it as though we, all of us, on January 6th, we all looked into the abyss," Cheney says. "And responsible public servants and responsible elected officials have a duty to pull the country back from that."

But it must be said that Cheney's party does not agree with her. She lost her primary this summer by nearly 40 points. Other Republicans who resisted Trump on the election count have been ousted in state after state, replaced with election deniers.

"We have come to a place of uncertainty about how we cast and count ballots," write Garrett and Becker. "This is as absurd as it is destructive, particularly given how far we've come and how much more secure our elections are today than ever before."

The idea that the 2020 election was "stolen" or was somehow not legitimate has taken root within the Republican Party and to some degree beyond it.

Garrett and Becker lay the blame on "grifters" they say are selling this idea – and profiting from the sale financially through fundraising. The way to break their grip on so many Americans is with facts, and with insistence that facts still exist and can prevail.

In our time, it can be argued that the burden long borne by the word truth has shifted to the word fact. If truth has come to be regarded as subjective – the realm of the personal – we still see reasonable people of widely disparate backgrounds recognizing facts for what they are. They are the building blocks of demonstrable reality. They are the beyond denial, beyond the debate on competing cable TV news channels.

By these lights, if we had a Diogenes in our day, he might very well be called a fact checker.

Fact checking as the lamp

This past week, the Poynter Institute held a conference on facts and politics in Washington, D.C., to honor the 15th anniversary of its founding of Politifact. The fact-checking operation gained immediate attention when it won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the 2008 presidential election. Along with other operations, such as FactCheck.org (a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania), Politifact has striven to hold participants on all sides of the partisan divide to a constant standard of fact.

The Poynter Institute was the brainchild of Nelson and Henrietta Poynter, who also used some of the proceeds of their profitable newspapers in Indiana and Florida to start a newsletter in 1945 that tallied the votes of individual members of Congress. At the time, the Congressional Record did not routinely provide that information for the House.

Their newsletter evolved into Congressional Quarterly, eventually a weekly magazine with various online iterations. It remains so today, with the title usually abbreviated as CQ (which also happened to be a proofreaders' mark meaning written material had been checked and verified for factual accuracy).

The sense of facts implicit in "CQ" was similar to what lawyers mean when they speak of "the facts of the case" or facts that have been stipulated by both sides. These are basic points that all parties to a dispute are willing to accept, leaving all other matters to be determined by the jury.

All too often, of course, what we hear in contemporary media is not an attempt to find facts that might be agreed upon but rather a continuing competition between narratives, a wrestling match pitting one version of events against another. Each side sees its narrative as factual. Each side sees the other's as an elaborate fiction, the product of corrupt spinners of fanciful falsehoods.

Competing with social media

Politifact was born just as social media emerged as a pervasive and increasingly dominant element in the media culture. Big newspapers and the national broadcasters had once set the agenda and acted as referees in the political contentions of the day. But social media supplied an alternate route — a public square in which all voices might be heard and might pretend to equal authority. The new force of these media reached a critical stage when it helped bring Trump to power in 2016.

Through all this, facts can still "raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair," to borrow a phrase from George Washington.

No matter how much we might wish them otherwise, the facts are the facts. They stubbornly refuse to be otherwise, or to conform to our wishes and preferences.

There are two famous quotations often cited by political figures and journalists in defense of facts. One is from John Adams, the future president who had the challenging task of defending the British soldiers who fired on a rowdy crowd in 1770 – an incident known as the "Boston Massacre."

Adams understood why jurors were inclined to convict the redcoats, but argued the facts were more complex. And that meant they had to think again.

"Facts," Adams told the jury, "are stubborn things. And whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."

The four-term senator from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, said it in fewer words: "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts."

As long as we can make that distinction, we can aspire to shutting off the gaslight and looking to the lamp of Diogenes.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.