“Fake news is a hoax.” Think about that one for a while. Before long you’ll ask, “Is a hoax a hoax if people disbelieve it?” Normally people have to believe a lie, for it to qualify as a hoax. We used to think of a hoax as akin to a practical joke: one that requires some planning, skill at tomfoolery, and no urgent need to reveal the deception. Recently a trio of mischievous scholars sent ridiculous papers for review to academic journals, to show what nonsense the journals would publish. You could say the publications asked for it.
Yet now ‘hoax’, like ‘treason’ and ‘conspiracy theory’, has become an all-purpose part of the political lexicon. These strong terms refer to objects of skepticism or disapproval, or any dubious claim. If you don’t like something you hear, call the speaker a conspiracy theorist, who must be a traitor, because only traitors would try to perpetrate a hoax.
If you don’t like something you hear, call the speaker a conspiracy theorist, who must be a traitor, because only traitors would try to perpetrate a hoax.
The problem with degradation of political language extends beyond our desire that people communicate clearly. After all, George Orwell regarded obfuscation among a politician’s most valuable skills: you can lie without lying. More serious problems develop if supposedly authoritative words consistently serve political aims. When political motives overtake everything else, when every measure of truth is a political measure, you have premonitory conditions for degraded discourse. Put simply, political measures of truth do not yield truth.
What do these measures yield? They produce lawlessness, corruption, secrecy, cruelty, warfare, and all the other things we observe when power supersedes truth in the public sphere. We criticize dishonest politicians, the more so because they subvert truth for selfish gain. We readily perceive that you cannot trust them. They insult us with their belief that we will succumb to their lies. If they wanted to persuade us, they would be less dishonest.
Prevalent dishonesty might appear hard to detect. All of us, however, have internal standards of judgment that make lies apparent.
Ideals of public service illuminate this perversion. People seek power not to serve others. People who hold power prize dishonesty, because dishonesty helps them use people for their benefit. When you forsake leadership for gain, you have no reason to build trust, or be forthright. Motives for every act advance pretense, deception, manipulation, and disguised force. You do not have to analyze political language at length to discern when motives like these take hold. Prevalent dishonesty might appear hard to detect. All of us, however, have internal standards of judgment that make lies apparent.
Trump comments on public impeachment hearings, to begin this week: “They shouldn’t be having public hearings. This is a hoax.” Clearly, if you regard impeachment as a hoax, you will not like congressional hearings, public or private. Trump also knows his supporters like that word. I will say his audience does not seem to have internal standards of judgment engaged. Rather, many supporters appear to place Trump’s standards above his opponents’ standards.