Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Language is the first and last contest of the post-truth era



The US press corps recently released an open letter to the incoming president, published in the Columbia Journalism Review. It is carefully strident, anticipating the tensions while setting out a position of strength and intent.

Donald TrumpIt signals tactical shifts: finding alternatives to White House access, limiting the flow of false or incomplete information, cultivating sources in the bureaucracy, the prospect of joint investigations between news organisations that normally compete.

'We believe there is an objective truth, and we will hold you to that,' the journalists state. This would be a small start in correcting the false-balance narratives and conspiracy theories that have plagued news coverage and social media — from which media organisations have profited.

Over the past several years, the following terms have become currency: truther, denialist, post-factual, post-truth, fake news. It is a vocabulary that explains some of the anxieties of our time. It lends itself to the sensation that something fundamental is at stake.

Except for linguists and philosophers, most of us take language for granted. We don't remember or think about how we learned the basics and built on them. Whether Auslan, Arabic, Braille, Mandarin or Xhosa, we use such systems to interact with the world around us and make sense of experience.

We may think of words as units of agreement. 'I' am not 'you'. The 'sky' is 'up' not 'down'. These linguistic agreements about the concrete was basis for civilisation, as humans named things that could be safely eaten and grown, instituted rituals and hierarchies, delineated territory, and attributed value to resources for trade.

The State Library of Victoria, for instance, holds a shard of cuneiform that says: 'Taxes paid in sheep and goats in the 10th month of the 46th year of Shulgi, second king of the Third Dynasty of Ur'.

Many of the earliest written records were similarly prosaic. Language was initially a way of imposing order, of fixing memory and holding together entire socio-economies. It stands to reason that when language is decoupled from reality — or at least agreements about a shared, objective reality — there are de-civilising effects.


"Donald Trump is the apotheosis of this deepening incongruity between language and lived realities."


History proves the case. The construction of racial difference led to slavery, colonisation and segregation. Nazi propaganda facilitated ghettoes, invasion and genocide. Systematic denial of climate change has led to policy inertia, which must soon be reckoned with.

Language is the first and last contest. It manifests in the appropriation and co-option of words that minorities have long used to challenge ongoing histories of oppression, such as privilege, safe spaces and genocide. Many white men now see non-discriminatory policies as privileging women and minorities, claim safe spaces for themselves (like gaming), and hold that diversity and pluralism amount to white genocide.

Donald Trump is the apotheosis of this deepening incongruity between language and lived realities. In the weeks before the US election, Salena Zito wrote of Donald Trump: 'The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.' This resonated in the Philippines, where the difficulties of parsing between literal and figurative expression was already destabilising relationships between the president, the press, the judicial and legislative branches, the police force and civil society. Not being able to take consequential public statements as meant — that loosens threads that bind democracies.

In other words, the work cut out for US journalists is cut for all who live in this era. If language no longer organises reality in a way that meets basic agreement, not much holds us together. That might be why we feel that something beyond politics is at stake.


Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She tweets @foomeister .

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Donald Trump, post-truth, fake news



submit a comment

Existing comments

Interesting article Fatima. I wonder how many others had to search for the meaning of apotheosis.

Peter Hanley | 19 January 2017  

I think that Don Watson (of weasel words fame) would concur with you Fatima, but I also think that the horse bolted in this regard a long time ago in relation to Donald Trump having the ultimate status for this linguistic expression. No wonder people don't trust people in power. I'll never forget the person who once told me: "we can do whatever we want" ... and they do!

Mary Tehan | 19 January 2017  

Forget for a moment Donald Trump and the new world order and let's focus on what is really important: the Essendon Football Club saga! Have you noticed how James Hird and his supporters always refer to the issue as the "supplements" program, and never call it what it really was, i.e. a "drugs" program or a "pharmaceuticals" program? Had the language been more honest, calling a spade a spade, then not many of the players would have been so gullible as to have shuffled along each week for their clandestine injections of pharmaceutical concoctions. "Oh, I'm not taking drugs. I'm just taking my food supplements," they could rationalise their compliance with the program. Yeah.

Richard Olive | 19 January 2017  

" 'We believe there is an objective truth, and we will hold you to that,' the journalists state." And they would wouldn't they? A remarkably fundamentalist statement which they themselves must know is not true. Ask a Murdock journali8st what they are permitted to say. There is very little objectivity, despite our hopes. We all need to be critical readers. Unfortunately much of what is posted as writing is provided by payed hacks in advertising, media offices or puff piece writers. These are the whores of capitalism-anything for a bob. "Pay us and we will dress up lies as fact on your behalf." Unless we all read whatever we read with critical non fundamentalist eyes we will be and are at the mercy of paid lairs. Ad agencies are responsible to whom?

Michael D. Breen | 19 January 2017  

I agree "If language no longer organises reality in a way that meets basic agreement, not much holds us together. That might be why we feel that something beyond politics is at stake." But I disagree that it's predominantly in politics hence why we feel more is at stake - it is! It comes down to the very language we use and whether we cover the uncomfortable with euphemisms or alternate facts in our everyday lives where our power is exercised. It reminds me of what is written in Romans 12:21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good and is reflected in the words of Gandhi "Be the change you want to see in the world."

Gordana Martinovich | 24 January 2017  

"'We believe there is an objective truth, and we will hold you to that,' the journalists state." When is something objectively true, when a writer subjectively believes it to be? Why is the State Library said to hold a shard of cuneiform? Does it not own it? Is there a feeling somewhere that perhaps, like the Elgin Marbles, the shard should be culturally unappropriated and relocated to where it first came into existence, somewhere in Iraq presumably? Will we have to parse all the news that is tiptoed to us from writers' keyboards because everything is ... political?

Roy Chen Yee | 25 January 2017  

Trump said he would defund International Planned Parenthood. Literally. He did, (thank the Lord) as soon as he came into office. Literally. Lived reality. Tick. Many celebrity snowflakes insisted they would emigrate if Trump won. He won. But they didn't emigrate. Not lived reality. Cross. The leftist Madonna promised something else so disgusting I won't repeat it. But she hasn't honoured her promise. Cross: not lived reality. I could go on and on. So far on Trump, the left is way out in front pushing the divide between language and lived reality. As they ever have been.

HH | 25 January 2017  

Thanks for the article Fatima. This is not a “left/right” issue with Trump having no critics from “the right”. Given the fluffy alignment of left and right these days it is hard to rigidly define Trump’s army of critics to any one side. I certainly wouldn’t regard the Clintons or Obama, or John McCain and Trump’s Republican critics as being of “the left” in the general meaning of the word. Perhaps my lived reality is different and I am using my own form of “alternative facts”, a phrase originating not from “the left”, but I think it is something we all do on a daily basis. When I think of Trump’s denials of comments he made during the election campaign, he is not a long way from his critics as far as the gap between language and lived reality goes. The point should not be to play cute little games trying to pin this down to one political viewpoint when it is current across the spectrum, even unto the libertarians.

Brett | 31 January 2017  

... and right on cue, the so-called "apotheosis of this deepening incongruity between language and lived realities" sedulously fulfills more of his election promises, seriously, and literally, and what's more to the delight of his supporters: selecting a pro-life, originalist judge for the Supreme Court bench, placing a temporary freeze on U.S. entry to citizens of countries that harbour Islamic terrorists (a la Obama re. Iran except there was not a whiff of outrage when that happened), sacking an Attorney General who refused to do her job. Tick, tick, tick. Meanwhile, crowds of Trump haters, many paid off by billionaire George Soros, wander the streets looting, smashing windows, bashing up suspected Trump supporters, including the disabled, while N Y Times journalists explicitly pine for the president's assassination. All under the banner of "Love Trumps Hate." No incongruity there, I suppose?

HH | 01 February 2017  

There is something missing in "Love Trumps Hate", but maybe that was deliberate by his supporters in their keenness to love Trump's hate.

Brett | 02 February 2017  

"Sacking an Attorney General who refused to do her job. Tick, tick, tick." When you look more closely the former A-G was actually doing her job by questioning the legality of the Executive Order. She would not follow the old "I was only following orders" excuse. The stay on implementing the Executive Order, followed by the failure of the Administration's appeal against the stay, seems to support the former A-G's concerns. You have to ask who was closer to lived reality here. Sacked for not wanting to do something illegal? We will see. It does speak volumes for the Trump White House that so little concern is shown for the law.

Brett | 05 February 2017