WASHINGTON, November 25, 2016 — The Oxford Dictionaries has announced their word of the year for 2016. It defeated such worthy challengers as “adulting,” “Brexiteer,” “alt-right,” and “Latinx.”
The word is “post-truth.”
According to Oxford, post-truth is “an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’” It is a good word to describe a world in which we barely distinguish between the truthful and the “truthy,” Stephen Colbert’s neologism which describes the quality of seeming to be true, even if untrue.
Much of the news now has a quality of truthiness to it. Because so much news is truthy, it’s become difficult to discern fact from factoid, satire from reality, and truth from lie.
For instance. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) told NBC News last week that there were over 300 incidents of hate and harassment in the week following Donald Trump’s election victory. According to SPLC, most of those incidents took place in K-12 schools and on university campuses.
Continued reports of such incidents abound. These incidents include racist and sexist slurs, spray-painted swastikas, other racist graffiti, physical assaults on Muslim and female students, and other acts of intimidation and violence. SPLC says that the number of incidents reported in the week after the election matches the number of reported incidents in a typical six-month period.
It is not, however, able to verify all reported incidents.
The widespread reports of hate and harassment may be true, but they may be truthy. To employees of the SPLC and to those protesting President-elect Trump, they are on their face true. Trump is after all a hate-mongering racist, and people who voted for him are almost tautologically racist. Trump has tapped into a vast pool of latent American racism—so latent that millions of his voters are women, blacks, Latinos, and former Obama voters who were unaware until Trump’s nomination that they were only waiting for permission to be racist.
Having received permission this month, they are rampaging like sinister clowns across America, waiting next to their white vans for the opportunity to terrorize non-white children and women in pantsuits.
There are in fact real mimes and clowns in the world, and they do sometimes terrorize innocent passers-by on Paris and New York City streets. There have been real assaults committed by people dressed as clowns. But most of these clowns have been high school and college boy-men showing the level of bad judgment we expect from post-adolescent males when they aren’t waiting to cause college administrators Title IX nightmares.
Likewise, a number of hate incidents are certainly real, and no decent person could condone them. But others are just as certainly stupid pranks, deliberate falsifications, and the result of unchecked anxiety and fear.
That any of these incidents is real is a cause for concern, but they appear against a vast background. According to the FBI, law enforcement agencies reported 5,479 hate crime incidents involving 6,418 offenses in 2014. These crimes left 6,727 victims. And those numbers were down from the averages of the previous 20 years.
Most hate incidents go unreported. According to a Justice Department study, the real number of hate crime victims older than 12 is above 250,000 per year, a number that dwarfs the FBI number.
There are at least two issues here. First, if Trump supporters are engaging in violence against women, gays, Latinos and Muslims—something that we can say with statistical certainty is true—how do we identify those incidents against the background noise of hate? Second, what exactly is a hate incident?
The answer to the first question involves rigorous statistical analysis that hasn’t been carried out. Because some of us expect there to be Trump-inspired hate crimes and because we’ve heard about them and in some cases have witnessed them, we have a crime wave by anecdote. We have with it the problems of fear and hypervigilance, the sort of fear that convinced much of the country that gun violence was up when in fact it was near 30-year lows, and the sort of hypervigilance that gets school kids suspended and expelled for taking aspirin to school and drawing violent pictures on their writing assignments.
False Trumpist-violence effects are nothing new. In the 1990s, reporters circulated a grim statistic: Rates of domestic violence rose by as much as 40 percent on Super Bowl Sunday.
That statistic prompted the creation of public service announcements to try to talk down beer- and testosterone-fueled football fans. Commentators were able to explain why the statistic was so obviously true: Men are violence-prone brutes, and football represents all that is brutish, mindless and macho. Thus men were more likely to slap their wives and girlfriends around to vent frustration and excitement.
And the story was a lie. It’s a lie that refuses to die, a lie so truthy that, 20 years later, it’s hard to let it go. But all the data and all the studies since then show that levels of domestic violence don’t change much on Super Bowl Sunday.
A good story has legs, regardless of whether it’s true. The ground was well-prepared for the story of Trumpist violence by months of reporting and thousands of anti-Trump articles, many of which breathlessly announced that not only was Trump was racist, he was “openly racist.”
Trump’s racist rhetoric included frequent statements like this:
It is my highest and greatest hope that the Republican Party can be the home in the future and forevermore for African-Americans and the African-American vote because I will produce, and I will get others to produce, and we know for a fact it doesn’t work with the Democrats and it certainly doesn’t work with Hillary.
And at the end of four years I guarantee that I will get over 95% of the African-American vote. I promise you. Because I will produce for the inner-cities and I will produce for the African-Americans.
America must reject the bigotry of Hillary Clinton who sees communities of color only as votes, not as human beings worthy of a better future.
Trump delivered up the same, pleasantly bland campaign rhetoric with regard to Hispanics, gays and women; he sounded much like any other politician, if sometimes less articulate, when he talked about minority issues. Yet there were probably more news stories about his racism than there are active Klansmen in America. And even so he was rewarded with more Hispanic and black votes than were received by Mitt Romney and John McCain.
The only group that didn’t shift by 5 percentage point or more in Trump’s favor in this election was—wait for it—white people.
None of this proves that Trump isn’t a racist, that his voters aren’t racists, or that some of them aren’t violent. It does suggest that the story of Trump’s racism has a touch of truthiness to it. Reports of racist violence from his supporters is more than a little truthy. Before jumping on that bandwagon, remember the false news of Super Sunday.