Donald Trump and his staff say a lot of things. Some of those things are lies. Some are perhaps better characterized as distortions. Some of them are simply blatant contradictions of things they have said before.
Take this past weekend: On Saturday, Trump let off a series of tweets ridiculing supporters of a recount, calling it a scam, noting Hillary Clinton’s promise to respect the outcome, and saying that “Nothing will change.” On Sunday, he asserted that there had been “millions of people who voted illegally.”
“Trump has lost the thread of his own argument,” Ezra Klein wrote in Vox, juxtaposing those statements. “Trump undermined himself.”
Klein perhaps expects that exposing internal inconsistencies weakens Trump’s statements in some way. But I think it probably won’t, because I don’t think Trump’s statements are statements at all, and we are sorely misled if we take them that way.
To begin to understand words in the “post-truth” era, we need a dose of language theory. And it helps to spend a little time with the climate denial movement.
How do facts matter when facts no longer matter?
In what we call speech act theory, John Austin suggests two ways we can take people’s speech (any instance of language, spoken or otherwise): constative utterances (assertions about the world, such as “it is raining”) and performative utterances (language that has an impact on the social world, such as “I now pronounce you married”). Judith Butler later built on this concept of performative utterances to develop her theories of gender as a performative: the belief in such things as “men” and “women” are the product of how we speak about and act out “masculinity” and “femininity” in social life.
Likewise, we all believe that such a thing as “the United States” exists only insofar as we all talk and act as though it does.
TLDR: When we speak, we don’t just describe the world. We create it.
Inconsistent statements like Donald Trump’s gnaw on many of us precisely because they refuse to refer to the reality we know and live it. They feel like incorrect constative utterances—ones that demand to be rebutted and corrected.
But what if we look at them as performative utterances? In this case, it would be like someone saying “I now pronounce you married. Marriage doesn’t exist.” The reality apparently being created doesn’t really make sense.
So if we take performative language seriously, we shouldn’t just be asking “is Trump telling the truth?” We also have to be asking, “what effect are his statements having on the world?”
Anti-knowledge in the post-truth era
The fun new jargon word for this is “agnotology,” understanding of what is not understood: ignorance, the unknown, and in particular how a kind of active non-knowledge can arise from our institutions of research. Sometimes this is simply be accidental or at least not malicious—scientists don’t think to look for what they’re not looking for, funding for research follows some priority areas and not others.
Yet on some issues in public health, science, or politics, interested parties strategically create non-knowledge. It’s not about hitting on a really persuasive argument or convincing people of an alternate reality. It’s about producing enough confusion to maintain a status quo where there’s little public pressure for action.
For example, the fossil fuel industry-backed think tank the Heartland Institute has produced reports, slideshows, and opinion essays arguing:
- that climate change isn’t happening
- that we’re not sure if it’s happening and it’s a controversial issue
- that it’s important to keep having a debate
- that climate change is happening but it’s not that bad
- that its effects will be beneficial
- that human activity is probably not responsible and we can’t really be sure
- that perhaps everything the climate scientists say is really true, but efforts to do anything about it would be devastating to the poor
- and that Osama Bin Laden and Charles Manson believed in climate change.
(See also Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway’s Merchants of Doubt.)
There’s no coherent story there. There never has been, across the movement to avoid action on climate change.
And how much action has there been on climate change?
Don’t (just) ask what words someone is saying. Ask what their words are doing.
The conclusion here isn’t that the factual content of words doesn’t and shouldn’t matter. (Remember, we create our social world: the more we all act like facts matter, the more they do matter!)
The point is that in addition to or outside of what they’re claiming about the world, we always also have to be attentive to what effects words have ON the world.