Some facts are obvious, indisputable: a car is red. A triangle has three corners. A ball went up and then came down.
This is the language of toddlers. Simple, to the point. Observable. Measurable. And, in some cases, axiomatic — the very definition of a triangle is a shape with three corners.
Such factual language takes up a certain percentage of daily discourse. (“Where’s the bathroom?” “Down the hall to the left.” “Would you like the red or blue shirt?” “The blue one, please.”) But as the concepts and ideas that language attempts to describe get more complex, reflecting the real world and the breadth of human activity and experience, as well as what is known and not known, facts become less obvious and more disputable.
Shortcuts are taken, white lies are told.
The statement “Columbus discovered America in 1492,” which for me in grade school in the 1980s seemed like an obvious fact that was not worth questioning, has by now been shown to be inaccurate and misleading.
Indeed, entire books have now been written to demonstrate that the Vikings reached North America long before Columbus, that Columbus actually never found any of the land that we know today as the United States of America but instead sailed around the Caribbean and explored the Central and South American coasts.
To be factually correct, you would have to rewrite the statement “Columbus discovered America in 1492” to the much more clunky, but more accurate:
In 1492, Columbus became the first non-Scandanavian explorer to cross the Atlantic Ocean and reach land off the coast of North America.
The revision is not exactly the sort of stuff that makes for easy reading and — perhaps more importantly from a cultural perspective — storytelling. But the difference between the two statements is significant. The first version is an origin story, the simple narrative of a heroic man having an adventure that resulted in the great nation of America. In the second, more accurate description of the facts, the actor and action remains approximately the same, but the waters are muddier. Crucially, the country name “America” — which has a clear meaning because it is a country with borders — is left out. And there is less confidence regarding the importance of the achievement, which is placed into context by the use of the phrase “first non-Scandinavian explorer.”
Even so, the misleading notion that “Columbus discovered America” still persists, and many Americans do not even know that Vikings arrived many centuries before Columbus.
The nation still celebrates the anniversary of Columbus reaching land after his long journey even though he never actually made it to America.
And Native Americans are still referred to as “Indians,” even though it was long-ago disproved that Columbus did not arrive in India as he had thought, but a world that was entirely new to Europeans.
We All Do It
Now here’s another example of what seems appropriate to call a linguistic white lie, a less epic one in scope and implication but a lie nonetheless:
T.S. Eliot wrote the poem “The Waste Land.”
Even if you’re not familiar with the poet or his works, this statement has the air of a relatively indisputable fact. You wouldn’t blink reading a statement like this. Poems are written by people. They have titles. What could be more simple?
The reality, as revealed by academic scholarship, is more complicated.
Research has shown that Eliot relied a great deal on significant edits provided by his mentor, poet Ezra Pound, in drafting “The Waste Land,” and that originally the poem was almost twice its final length before these edits. Specifically, if the original manuscript of “The Waste Land” had been published without Pound’s edits, most readers would never have gotten far enough into the poem to arrive at what is now the famous opening lines — “April is the cruelest month, breeding / lilacs out of the dead land…” — because of 54 lines of boring, voice-heavy poetry that came before it in the original draft, lines that described a guy going on all-night drinking binge and that bore the terrible original title of the poem as envisioned by Eliot: “He Do The Police In Different Voices,” a reference to an obscure line in a Charles Dickens novel.
Therefore, while some observers — including myself — believe “The Waste Land” might be better conceived as a collaboration between Eliot and Pound, what’s indisputable is that it’s much easier to say “T.S. Eliot wrote ‘The Waste Land’” than the more factually correct, and yet less clear-to-the-general-reader statement:
T.S. Eliot has his name listed as the author for the poem ‘The Waste Land,’ and he produced the majority of the material in the poem.
As with the Columbus example, the difference between these two statements is significant.
The concept of “writing” a poem seems clear and straight-forward, so when this concept is critically questioned and recast in more accurate language, we are suddenly left feeling a bit more ambivalent about the concept being communicated.
While the first statement would serve T.S. Eliot himself as well as a general reader, the second, more accurate accounting of the facts would serve someone who was interested in knocking the famous poet down a rung.
We Have Arrived at Deconstruction Junction
Making a factual statement that goes beyond easily verifiable information or axiomatic observation can be a challenge.
The more complex a concept or process being described, the more language seems like a bedsheet that doesn’t quite fit.
With respect to complex concepts and processes, the mismatch between the expedient need for humans to make sense of the world and the rigorous definition of “fact” offers an avenue of attack for critics.
Once the weakness of language is known — once we view a speaker or writer as we might view an interior painter who has been given an impossibly textured surface to finish — it becomes very easy to critique factual statements word by word, pointing out the nooks and crannies that were missed despite all the care that was taken.
In academia this is critical approach known as “deconstruction,” and it’s based on the notion that one can produce scholarly research about any well-known set of “facts” simply by demonstrating, as I have done with the above two examples, that the inconvenience of imprecise language makes reality much more complicated.
By noticing and critiquing the small and unavoidable flaws, the deconstructionist may hope to tarnish credibility and cast doubt on the stability of foundational concepts.
To invoke a Star Wars metaphor, imagine Luke Skywalker in his small X-wing shooting proton torpedoes into a thermal exhaust port and causing a chain reaction that leads to the destruction of the moon-sized Death Star.
Does the threat of deconstruction mean we should throw our hands up and walk away from language, muttering something about how “language is meaningless” and “there is no truth” with a French accent?
Rather, we should embrace the challenges of language and build resilience into whatever we are trying to communicate, disclosing biases and anticipating criticism.
Or we could just ignore the inconveniences of language and plough ahead.
In my opinion, it doesn’t matter whether someone who reads “The Waste Land” for the first time understand the background of how it was written and edited, nor that an American child be told anything other than “Columbus discovered America.” Despite everything we now understand about Columbus, the basic interpretation of his story as a fascinating tale of entrepreneurship and exploration need not be relegated to the dustbin of history.
A deeper reality is always available, waiting to be investigated.
Instead of driving ourselves (and others) crazy trying to speak and write factually all the time, it is far better to use good judgment to decide whether deconstruction or complication is helpful in a given situation.
If not, telling a white lie may be the best — and most expedient — decision we can make as communicators.