When real-life Disney villain Kellyanne Conway (b. 1967), counselor and advisor to President Trump, used the term “alternative facts” during a January 2017 interview to explain why everyone was “wrong” about the small number of citizens who attended Trump’s presidential inauguration, she was much derided by the American media. The term “alternative facts” had the solid ring of fascism to it, an Orwellian euphemism for propaganda that the State in its infinite power and wisdom wants journalists and citizens to unquestioningly accept.
But I think she was misunderstood.
However sloppy her grasp on reality, Conway was right about the need for alternative facts in discourse.
That is to say, with respect to any quantum of information — whether an argument, an essay, or a newspaper article — there are going to be facts that are not mentioned but which nonetheless might be critical to comprehension of that information.
In constructing an argument or telling a story, some facts might be omitted because they are inconvenient; either they do not support the argument being made or, much worse, they contradict the argument. But they are still facts. And we might be well-served to think of these as “alternative facts.”
In April 2018, for example, celebrated Dominican novelist and Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Junot Diaz published a searing essay in the New Yorker entitled “The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma.”
In the essay, Diaz disclosed for the first time that he had been raped as a child by a man he trusted and that it had resulted in a lifetime of depression and failed relationships.
Despite all the negative consequences Diaz attributed to the rape, however, he stopped just short of admitting to his own sexually abusive and predatory behavior toward women.
Instead, it took writer Zinzi Clemmons alleging on Twitter that Diaz had forcibly kissed her during a writing workshop to bring additional “alternative facts” about Diaz to light.
“I’m far from the only one he’s done this [to],” Clemmons noted.
Diaz’s essay had a strong impact, landing on the public as it did right in the middle of America’s “Me Too” moment, and yet many people felt its author had been dishonest once other women came forward with their stories.
In the essay, Diaz postures himself as a sort of accidental Casanova, cheating on his girlfriends and sleeping around because of the psychological damage he’d suffered.
But given the alternative information that emerged after the essay published, many people wondered how much of the sexual activity Diaz described was mutually solicited. Was all this slutting-around truly rooted in psychological trauma, or was Diaz mostly just trying to deflect attention from the same abuse-of-power story that took down many other famous men during the Me Too movement?
Whether we consciously realize it our not — and whether we eventually become Pulitzer-Prize winning authors or not — in America we are taught to ignore alternative facts very early in life, as early as grade school.
Here, our education system teaches us to construct an essay in the so-called “five-paragraph form” — to write one paragraph that contains a thesis statement, three paragraphs containing information supporting that statement, and a third paragraph that restates the thesis and concludes the argument.
This approach, which begins with a theory and then finds evidence to support it, is known as deductive reasoning.
But while the deductive approach will usually result in a “proven” argument, earn an “A” from your high school English teacher, and make you feel good, it completely ignores alternative evidence that might contradict your point of view.
An American grade-school thesis is therefore often “right,” but also quite possibly wrong because of the alternative facts it has neglected to include.
In my eleventh grade Honors English class, I analyzed the William Butler Yeats poem “The Second Coming.” (I believe I had read a science fiction novel in which the main villain quoted from the poem, and I found it to be intriguing, fantastical, and moving — as many young literary types do.)
The only problem? I had no idea what the Second Coming referred to, was totally ignorant of the fact that the title and indeed the entire poem was a reference to the return of Jesus Christ to Earth and the final battle between good and evil. I don’t remember what my thesis statement was, nor do I remember the evidence I used to bolster my thesis in my three neat supporting paragraphs. What I do know is I completely ignored the poem’s title, received an “A” on the paper, and a few years later in college I found out what the Second Coming actually was and thought to myself, “Oh shit, so that’s what the poem is about?”
Though it is dangerous to get into the habit of omitting important information, as many high school students will do as they follow the five-paragraph structure, it is perhaps even more dangerous to be completely unaware of the existence of that information to begin with.
Indeed, the real world — and even most college classes — offers a more complex challenge to the young student than high school.
Professors and TAs, supervisors and managers, tend to be more knowledgable about a particular area of interest. They’re more likely to call B.S. when they see it or, if they’re nice, direct you to additional sources.
As a graduate student teacher in English some years ago, I taught first-year freshman undergraduates to begin with facts instead of a thesis statement, to sift through information and then develop a thesis that best fit the information uncovered. This approach — also known as inductive reasoning — allows for the possibility that a conclusion might be wrong, but it also results in a more balanced outcome which best represents the relevant information.
If a conclusion reached by inductive reasoning is wrong, you can chalk things up to an “honest mistake” — that’s because certain alternative facts were not possible to know at the time, not because they were known and willfully ignored (as would be the case with deductive reasoning).
The trick to the inductive approach lies in determining which facts are important and which ones are not, as well as attempting to resolve disagreements between alternative facts. This is not easy.
Rather than simply ignoring alternative facts, one tried-and-true strategy is to address those facts and then find ways to dismiss them with additional evidence or reasoning.
This approach was labeled anteoccupatio by Cicero (106 BC — 43 BC), the Roman politician and lawyer.
The anteoccupatio technique is sort of like a rhetorical kung fu move that allows alternative facts to enter discourse, lending the appearance of honesty and expertise while simultaneously keeping alternative evidence from totally derailing the argument.
Now that I know what the Second Coming is, for example, I could go back and use the anteoccupatio technique in my high-school essay to point out that while the Yates poem is obviously inspired by the story of the return of Jesus Christ, one does not have to be familiar with the Christian Apocalypse to find meaning in the poem. I could then go forward and perform whatever secular analysis I wanted, assured that my inductive approach had accounted for alternative facts related to the overt religious themes of the poem.
Returning to the 2017 inauguration debate, the Trump Administration did try to back up Conway’s statements by pointing out that, when online and cable news viewership was taken into account, it was very possible that Trump’s inauguration was the “most-watched” in history.
But “most-watched” was a much different metric than the in-person attendance referred to by Conway and, even if one allowed the shift in metrics to give the incoming Administration the benefit of a doubt, the “alternative facts” about total viewership turned out to be more like speculative guesswork than anything factual.
People made fun of Conway for her word choice and the phrase “alternative facts” subsequently retired to the dustbin of history, but I wish it hadn’t happened that way.
Because alternative facts are real. They are important.
And they are not always the repressive tool of dictators, but the foundation of intellectual honesty and nuance that people rarely seem to demand of public discourse in our polarized political environment.