From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
The Same Reality
by Shane McCrae
I commit to take action because I care about language.
Trump lies. Everyone knows that. Until recently, I would have thought that knowing someone lies would be enough to make people take what that person says with a grain of salt. But Trump has somehow disarmed this previously dependable defense against unreality. This is incredibly dangerous.
Our various, but for the most part very closely related, understandings of reality, and the rules on which we rely in forging them, are to a great extent mediated by language—in particular, stable, locally common language. When gun advocates say, “Guns don’t kill people, people do,” they are advocating also for a particular understanding of the verb to kill; if everyone agreed to understand to kill the way gun advocates wish we would, our understanding of reality—a reality in which guns do indeed kill people, just as long-undiscovered landmines stumbled over by children thirty years after the war during which they were put in the ground kill people—would change. And indeed, by shifting the gun debate to a debate about mental health, gun advocates have taken a significant step toward accomplishing that goal.
A narcissist is a person with an overwhelming private understanding of everything. A narcissist with authority can impose their private understandings upon others. Fortunately, Trump’s authority isn’t absolute. But it is great enough that many, many people choose to align their understandings of reality with his, regardless of how honest or dishonest they know him to be. (Though the present moment is in many ways unique, authority has always taken precedence over truth.) When Trump says that numerous reputable news organizations are “fake news,” the word news itself takes a hit. (So, for that matter, does the word fake). When I tell you I heard a piece of news that you find disagreeable, and you respond, even in the face of indisputable documentation, that the news is “fake news,” then you and I no longer share the same reality. Each time this happens the differences between our realities compound, and our ability to bridge our realities with a common language decreases. Debate becomes difficult because we define the relevant terms in divergent ways; progress becomes almost impossible because debate is so difficult. Already, I do not see the same world my Trump-supporting relatives see. As far as I know, we still agree on what up and down mean, but I suspect this fragile concord will be the next thing to go.
And then where will we be? Who could say?
Take action today:
Donate to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Shane McCrae is the author of seven books of poetry, including, most recently, In the Language of My Captor.