Roxane Gay
Illustration: Alex Green

TThere is this thing people do in online discourse, where the truth becomes elastic, pliable. One person makes a statement and someone who disagrees reframes it, provocatively, to suit their purpose. On Twitter, I recently shared my opinion about the HBO series Big Little Lies. I did not care for the show, said I found it to be lazy, derivative, and overly focused on rich white women’s angst. A woman who disagreed quoted my tweet and said, “When Roxane Gay says domestic violence is just ‘rich women’s angst.’” As you might expect, I worked up a full head of steam because that was a blatant lie and not at all how I feel about domestic violence. I shouldn’t have cared but I do not have the maturity to be graceful when someone is so wildly wrong on the internet. This random person conflated my opinion of a television show that deals, in part, with domestic violence, with my stance on actual domestic violence, which was never part of the conversation. To provoke me, someone felt perfectly justified in using deception to express disingenuous, hollow righteousness.

Later, as I stewed over the exchange, I found myself thinking about truth. I have been thinking about truth a lot this year. I think most of us have, given the current, devastating political climate. I have thought about truth and how untruths made this current political climate possible.

Words matter. The truth matters. It is incomprehensible that this needs to be said, but this needs to be said. Donald Trump has long been a liar. Mendacity is as familiar to him as breathing. When he was simply a bloviating reality television star, his lies were easy to dismiss because he was simply a man with a bad tan, a bad toupee, and bad business acumen. Then he was running for president. His lies mattered more but were somewhat easy to dismiss because politicians lie. Now, though, Trump is the president of the United States. He is supposed to represent not only the minority of people who voted him into office but the rest of America, too. He is supposed to represent the United States throughout the world. He is shamefully inadequate for what his office demands. There is so much money cannot buy.

When Trump lies, it cannot be dismissed, no matter how frequently he does indeed lie about everything. He lies about his predecessor Barack Obama. He lies about the size of crowds who come to see him speak. He lies about his taxes. He lies about former opponent Hillary Clinton. He lies about the FBI, the environment, healthcare, America’s standing in the world, foreign policy, the economy, what he thinks, what he believes, and even what he says. The frequency and scope of his lies are such that we could easily be numbed to it all but words matter. The truth matters. Most of us still recognize that.

Every time the president lies, there are repercussions for the economy, for marginalized populations, for this country’s ever diminishing international reputation. And if that wasn’t bad enough, his lies now have global repercussions. One of Trump’s favorite phrases is “fake news,” which he deploys anytime he disagrees with how the media reports the truth about his politics, policies, and personal conduct. If something disappoints him, it is fake news and he is coddled by an entire staff of people who indulge him in this pathetic mindset.

The phrase “fake news” is a catchy little sound byte and one that has seeped into the cultural vernacular with alarming speed and ease. People of all political persuasions now use the phrase jokingly because, you know, it is oh so funny that truth has become so degraded, so corrupted, so quickly we can now joke about it. We can use fake news ironically, to hell with the consequences. The ground is softened and too many of us are gleefully treading upon it.

Some people use “fake news” with the utmost sincerity. Women and men coming forward as victims of sexual violence and predation is fake news. Racism is fake news. Homophobia is fake news. The deficit is fake news. Taxes are fake news. Global warming is fake news. Anything that demands they see the world as it is rather than they wish it to be is fake news.

CNN, according to the president, is a major purveyor of fake news. Recently, the president tweeted, “CNN International is still a major source of (Fake) news, and they represent our Nation to the WORLD very poorly. The outside world does not see the truth from them!” His opinion of CNN is nothing new but words matter. After a CNN report about modern day slavery in Libya, a Libyan broadcaster said, “Here the possibility arises that the channel has published the report of slavery in Libya to secure an as yet hidden political objective.” Just like that, an atrocity was in danger of being ignored by the people best positioned to address it. Not long after, a government official in Myanmar denied that the Rohingya minority in that country are oppressed when, in fact, they are. That official told the media, “There is no such thing as Rohingya. It is fake news.” As unbelievable as it is to say, the president of the United States has given despots and tyrants around the world license to deny the atrocities happening in their countries because he is a pathological liar incapable of any kind of engagement with the truth.

That we have to defend truth, that we have to state over and over again that truth matters, is the stuff of The Twilight Zone, but we’re living it, and have been since the day Trump decided he wanted to be president.

The truth matters. I try to remember this every day. I try to believe this every day. And it is hard. I believe in the truth, but, let me be clear, not out of some vigorous sense of idealism. I largely believe in the truth because it is easier to remember the truth than it is to keep up with lies. It is easier to create change and get things done when the most valuable currency is truth. The older I get, the more I crave simplicity and the straightforward. I also know we all lie, some of us more than others. People who say they never lie are lying. Most of us probably lie more to ourselves than anyone else. Sometimes we lie because we have to and sometimes because we want to. But the difference between us and the president and people of his ilk is that we generally feel some kind of remorse for lying. Even if we don’t regret our lies, we at least know we’re lying. We don’t treat lying as a vocation rather than a vice.

This has been a hard year politically, professionally, personally. I find myself wanting to say, “I love you,” far more than usual, because that is the one thing I know for sure, the one true, imperfect perfect abiding thing. And I need to hold on to that one true thing because I see the truth of what is happening politically. I want to scream. I want to fight. I want to surrender. I want to hide from the mess of all these terrible things being put into motion by our elected leaders, disgraces the lot of them. It’s all too much and there is little shelter from it. Here is another truth — some days, I have to tune the news out. I can’t get through my days sitting around obsessing with strangers about worst case scenarios that distressingly keep coming to pass. That said, I do not begrudge people who find comfort in that mild hysteria.

Some days, I barely understand what’s going on. Every hour, sometimes multiple times an hour, a significant news story breaks. I don’t even know how to keep track of it all. I do my research and read any number of articles before I can begin to make sense of the consequences of each new presidential decree or legislative action or other current event. I watch people on social media — pundits and writers and regular folk — who seem to be instant experts on every matter of policy. I start to feel like a fraud for not knowing all the policy-related things they seem to know. And then I feel like I will never write anything important or useful again. What does cultural criticism matter when we are fighting for healthcare and civil rights and the fate of the planet? And then I feel guilty for being so myopic, having such petty concerns, while the world around me, literally burns.

I have been thinking about truth. I hate when my words are misrepresented but when that stranger online lied about my opinion of Big Little Lies, I also had an uncomfortable moment of self-reflection. I had to admit to myself that when pushed on something I care passionately about, I might not be above doing the same thing. I might not be above making the truth of someone else’s ideas malleable to better suit my world view. I don’t like what that says about me. And that’s what’s at stake now, in ways small, such as this, and great, such as the fate of the world. The ground of truth has been softened by a perfidious president and self-interested politicians and everyone treating fake news as a punch line. The ground has been softened but we can mind how we tread upon it. We can make that ground stronger. We can. We will. That, too, is the truth.

Words That Matter

Some of the year’s most influential writers, thinkers, and experts reflect on the words that matter most in 2018.

Roxane Gay

Written by

I write. I want a tiny baby elephant. If you clap, I clap back. Books.: Ayiti, Untamed State, Bad Feminist. Difficult Women, World of Wakanda 1–5, Hunger.

Words That Matter

Some of the year’s most influential writers, thinkers, and experts reflect on the words that matter most in 2018.

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