Words mean things

Writers (yes, even me) sometimes joke about having license to make up new words, but the ones that already exist have meanings ascribed to them, so you can’t just use them however you like if you want people to understand your writing or speech. If I say “he was appalled by the situation” I expect you to understand that he was upset and angered, not that he grew pale, for instance.

That’s the thing: words mean what they mean. That’s why it’s so appalling and dangerous to hear the current U.S. administration throwing around terms like “alternative facts” or “fake news.” Facts are facts.

The word fact is defined as “a thing that is known to have occurred, to exist, or to be true.” The folks in power seem to be using the definition of “alternative” that signifies “of or relating to practices that offer a substitute for the conventional ones.” But you can’t put that together with the word “facts” and come up with anything resembling something real or truthful. If it happened, it’s a fact. If it did not, then it isn’t. If it can be proven, or shown, it’s a fact. Anything else is mere conjecture or outright lies.

Fake news is a real thing, horrifyingly. There are people and websites out there making millions (and more) by manufacturing so-called “news” stories that are full of blatant lies, sometimes laced with just enough near-truths to suck uncritical people in. In the old days before social media, we had another name for this stuff: propaganda. Definition: “an organized program of publicity, selected information, etc. used to propagate a doctrine, practice, etc. or the information, doctrines, etc. propagated in this way, especially regarded as misleading or dishonest.”

The former Soviet Union and the Nazi Party of Germany knew the value of propaganda. They used it to astonishing effect to gain the support of millions, despite the horrors they carried out in the pursuit of power. They used it to hide those horrors, to convince people that they were the good guys, that they had everyone’s best interests at heart. They massaged their messages to attract the “right” audiences.

Does anyone see a difference between that and what’s going on in the U.S. right now? Because I do not. The issue is one of degree at the moment, not of method. I don’t think anyone believes that the current White House leadership has already committed atrocities on the scale of concentration camps. But the Nazis started off with demanding identification, suppressing freedom of religion, and targeting specific groups as dangers to society. History repeats itself, as any student knows, and while the path downhill may not look exactly the same this time, it surely will not be pretty.

The problem is, you can’t use logic to sway someone from a view they didn’t use logic to arrive at. So you have to use something even more powerful: storytelling. You can tell the truth all you want, but if you don’t tell it in a way that hits people where their emotions lie, that doesn’t resonate and connect with people in a way that makes them want to change their behaviours and beliefs, then you will fail. We will all fail to stop this nonsense.

That’s why journalism is more important than ever. I went to j-school but have never formally worked as a journalist, but many of my classmates do, along with many others, and they’re damn good at what they do. I subscribed to the Globe and Mail earlier this year for the first time in my life, and I appreciate the work they’re doing in trying to bring truths to light, whether it’s about the U.S. situation, the tragedy of so-called unfounded sexual assault claims in Canada, the plight of our indigenous people, or so many other stories and issues that would go unknown if it were not for journalists.

We need to make sure they can keep doing their work. Telling the stories that might just change hearts and minds. Pushing back against the propaganda machines. Bringing light into the darkness. I always say clarity is my goal, and I know that it is theirs as well, those amazing people who dig and reach out and build relationships with sources, and who write the truth as it needs to be told.

I am grateful to them, and I applaud them, and so should you. Our very lives may depend on them. Please support print journalism. Subscribe, share the stories that matter to you, spread the words.

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