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Wander 1 - "Fact"

Updated: May 17, 2019

Welcome to our first Wander. We begin and end with a word in common English use today to address a simple question: "What are we saying?" The paths from here to there are less formalized and certainly less responsible. Some helpful guidelines can be found here.

alternative fact

2017 is already a banner year for the word “fact.” Before Kellyanne Conway pulled back the curtain on the “alternative”—and always more politically viable—version of the term, we had this comfortable understanding: “a thing done.”

Fact, Webster

Fact, OED


Fact is now in Merriam-Webster’s top 1% of online look-ups. Phrases like “post-fact” and “post-truth” continue to appear in popular media: so much so, in fact, that “post-truth” earned “Word of the Year” honors at Oxford Dictionaries in 2016. The adjective describes “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

Post-truth Oxford Dictionaries

We might point out, as Stephen Colbert did, that Truthiness, the 2006 Merriam-Webster word of the year, beat "post-truth" to the punch by a decade with an almost identical definition.

A fact’s connection with “truth” or “reality” is a forgone conclusion in the above definitions. Widespread alarm at the notion of “alternative” truth or reality only emphasizes this assumed connection. If we take a wander through the etymological antecedents of both “fact” and “true,” however, we can find precedent (and probably president) for challenging that connection.

Fact derives from the Latin factum, “a thing done.” The word “artifact,” for example, is a thing done by skill (or “art”). The verb form facere, “to make or do,” is the base of factum. The same base accounts for many English words, including factor, faction, factory, and even fashion. Each of these concerns how things are made or the way in which things are done.

You might not expect, however, that the same Latin base also accounts for the English word “fetish.” It’s from the Portuguese feitiço, meaning “charm, sorcery, allurement.” Factīcius, which describes something as “made by art,” is its Latin link to this term. The English factitious keeps some of its better-known cousin’s suspicious overtones:

Factitious OED

This is a different facet of fact's historical usage. While we commonly think of facts as things that are done, such things might also be made. This carries with it a sense of the unnatural or artificial, connotations sure to make “fact-checkers” uneasy. As per the OED, an archaic definition of “fact” still maintained those meanings:

Fact 3 OED

“To catch in the act,” still a familiar phrase, imports this legal sense of “fact”: a deed worth being accused of. What we have not acknowledged, however, is Francis Bacon's “truth bomb” in the OED’s example: that whatever is done “by things in fact” are “produced likewise in some degree by the imagination.”

It might help us navigate this newly named landscape of “alternate facts” if we recognize how unnecessary the term “alternate” really is. We might think of it as that disembodied voice in the Wizard of Oz ("Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!"):

The simplistic version of Bacon’s assertion is that reality is difficult to fully separate from our subjective experience, or what we make of things. We treat facts as events and things in the world, but we also substantiate them with “objective” records of those things: history, testimony, data.

Before you shout me down for implying that objectivity is dead and facts are worthless: let’s get to the truth. Remember how “post-truth” meant an appeal to emotions rather than facts to persuade people? “Post” certainly brings the drama, but let’s look behind the curtain once more.

True comes from Middle English trewe and Old English trēowe, for “loyal,” “faithful,” or “trusty.” The sense of fidelity to fact or reality is quite old in English, as early as the 14th century. The very first definition in the OED, however, is also relevant here:

OED True

An accompanying definition, now archaic, is “not liable to break or give way; firm; reliable; sound,” the way a knight might say “my sword is true.” That physical sturdiness reflects the ideological consistency above, the “true North” on your moral compass.

Instead of describing a new era in politics, “post-truth” stirs up a longstanding rhetorical divide. Consistency with facts confronts consistency with faith. The latter is demonstratively more persuasive to all of the political spectrum. Hidden Brain’s Shankar Vedantam interviews Arlie Hochschild on her book, Strangers in Their Own Land, which investigates this precise phenomenon among American voters.

Chimamanda Adichie’s 2009 TED Talk confronts the danger of a “single story” in any understanding, especially of race and of place. In spite of the dangers, such simple narratives compel us. The power of that compulsion, we might say, is an observable fact. In a 2004 interview with Ron Suskind, a white house "aide" (later identified by multiple sources as Karl Rove) made just that observation:

"The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'"

To be "history's actors," in Rove's words, is to be history's factors: it's makers. If that history is true to an ideology—whatever that may be—the simplicity of that consistency makes it a viable choice for your real support, even though it was entirely and knowingly "manufactured."

After all, facts are facts.

Rove and Conway offer us a discouragingly honest appraisal of how public discourse moves (and moves us). Constructing "realities" at such scale and with such impact is, one might say, quite the feat, another English word that derives from factum. That word's own magical history might helpfully re-frame our concerns.

Back when Shakespeare was thee-ing and thou-ing, street performers (especially acrobats and sleight-of-hand magicians) were known to do "feats of activity." Such performers were often collectively known as jugglers. The magicians in particular made a kind of contract with the audience, much as they do today. It has two parts: 1) I will work a wonder, and 2) You won't see how it works. You watch the show aware of this, the "known unknown" of the trick.

Illusions Michael

We might consider the extent to which we make this contract with our public figures. The stakes, of course, are vastly different, but the forms of the spectacles (and the players involved) can be eerily similar. Make the confident promise, and we'll just know you have something up your sleeve: to our delight or to our horror, but a kind of thrill nonetheless.

The great feats of factions, as it were, rest on the promises of public faith and fashion. This is not quite the same as saying "everything you know is wrong" or even "it's all relative." It does, however, invite us to question our positions with a different underlying assumption. Instead of wondering how consistent our beliefs are with "absolute facts," we can inquire: "To what are we true?" If we are willing to believe something: why that and not another? (alternatus, in Latin) A staggering array of histories, memories, and real feelings make us, and perhaps we remake them. As we perform this constant feat, perhaps we can catch ourselves in the fact.

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