By Sam Naylor
Kellyanne Conway has been making headlines this week. Sent out to explain away Sean Spicer’s bizarre comments regarding the crowds at Trump’s inauguration, she said “we feel compelled to go out and clear the air and put alternative facts out there”. Alternative facts, huh? How’s this:
Last week saw the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States of America, Bernie Sanders. As the world witnessed the honesty and good intentions of the new administration firsthand over the next few days, sales of George Orwell’s 1984 surged (it sold out on Amazon). Commentators were broadly bemused. Why, with a president of unparalleled frankness ascending to the Oval Office, was a narrative of lies and alternative facts, paradoxes and doublethink, a story of a nation which unashamedly proclaimed “War is peace, Freedom is slavery, Ignorance is strength”, becoming so popular?
Of course, here in the not-so-alternative world, few are surprised by this freak literary event. The approach to the media and to spreading a message that characterised the Trump campaign and now the Trump administration is highly reminiscent of the creation of doublethink that the state undertakes in Orwell’s classic. What is perhaps surprising is that so many people have been happy to accept Trump’s paradoxical self-contradiction. The build-up and reclamation of alternative facts (lies), ‘alt-right’ politics (fascism) and post-truth (hyper-emotion) dismayed me and caught me off-guard. I wasn’t used to it all being right there, so vocal, so undisguised. But with a bit of thought about the way we live our lives these days, this success starts to make sense.
I was brought up in an environment where politeness and good behaviour were paramount. Speak your mind, but only behind closed doors. Lying is wrong, but little white lies can be soothing. Enquire about others emotional wellbeing, but answer such questions only with an automated “oh me, I’m fine”. I now see these small acts as training wheels for doublethink as a daily routine.
This early education leads smoothly into the dual-life so many of us lead in the internet age. Living online provides a protection from the difficulties of normal social conventions. I can type a torrent of laughing emojis, HAHAHAHAs and exclamation marks, while I sit with a face like stone in a silent room, thoroughly unamused but unfailingly polite. Friends can open up about their deepest feelings from the comfort of their living rooms, sending virtual empathy flooding between phones, without the torment of figuring out what to do with your face while someone unburdens theirself to you. We aim for casual smiles, appropriate laughter, but the eyes can’t be hidden, won’t be erased. In them we find the raw power of social life, and it is often too much. The creation of two personalities, online and off, can help us process this. But in the Instagram-perfect life, the Facebook memories, the Snapchat filters, the 2am tears, the last-minute stress-fuelled binges, we slowly slip, slip, fall away from reality.
And there is inevitably cross-over between our online personas and our face-to-face interactions. The boundaries become blurred, and apparently separate identities merge. We tend to dismiss the cruelty of internet trolls as irrelevant, but when it becomes rampant it begins to tip and spill out of the half-empty glass, creating real-world suffering.
Not only are we capable of holding two contradictory ideas, two alternative sets of facts, in mind at once – we do it all the time
Fake news, fake truths, false reality. Are we becoming numb to the edits, deletions, omissions that politicians now barely attempt to conceal? Our online bubbles are permeating outwards from our screens, into streets of living, breathing people. Rather than opening up new forms of communication and understanding, social media saturation is merely reinforcing our own preconceived views. Our echo chambers keep us happy, using algorithms to feed us more of what we want to see and hear. When we are presened with something that challenges our beliefs, the backfire effect kicks in. When our deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, they just get stronger.
To quote 1984 again, “reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else”. Not only are we capable of holding two contradictory ideas, two alternative sets of facts, in mind at once – we do it all the time. Every day we each balance the cherry-picked highlights reel of our online existence with a flaws-and-all physical being, and believe in them both simultaneously. The contradiction here is perhaps not as offensive as ‘Freedom is Slavery’, ‘Ignorance is Strength’ or ‘An Empty National Mall is A Full National Mall’, but nor is it comfortably distant from the realm of doublethink that Orwell described. In a way the time is just right for Trump and Conway’s idea of alternative facts. Speaking truth to power is difficult when their standards of truth are so radically different from ours, but in this strange moment we must find new ways to challenge the powerful.
Featured image via The Independent