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OPINION | JEFF NASH: The rocky road between truth and lies

by JEFF NASH SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | August 1, 2021 at 1:58 a.m.

Not so long ago, calling someone a liar was serious business. Today, at least in mass media and social media, the word is loosely and maliciously thrown about.

Lies come in many forms. Coaches, after a successful season, say they have found their forever home. Coach Bill Self once said he would never leave Tulsa, and Jeff Long said about a comment one of his coaches made to reporters, "That's debatable whether that was a lie."

The "good lie" happens when a parent tells a small child that Grandma is just sick when she suffers from terminal cancer. Then there are lies by omission of important details, such as a U.S. representative told when he said the angry mob attacking the Capitol in January was just a bunch of tourists.

While "lies" may seem outrageous--global warming is a lie that liberals tell in order to change the way we live and take away our rights; Trump won the 2020 election; there are nanochips in the covid vaccine so that the government can track our every movement--people believe them and may act in accord with them, such as refusing to be vaccinated against covid.

So how are we to understand lying? In everyday face-to-face talk, we recognize and even use lies. Harvey Sacks, a founder of conversational analysis, demonstrated that lying is often necessary for accomplishing a conversation, from trivial exchanges such as "How are you? Fine, thank you" when you feel terrible to misrepresenting experiences (golf scores, exercise routines).

For the purposes of a particular conversation, we assume that we have equal access to what a speaker knows. If someone says something to us we don't understand, or think what they said might be wrong (a lie), we can question them. The point is that when we trust and are familiar with the people we talk to, we assume they are telling the truth, until they say something that calls our assumption into question.

Among like-minded conversationalists, understanding requires assumptions that speakers and listeners make about each other as they take turns and construct meanings which include how truth is understood. A truth that we assume everyone knows is what we call common sense. However, common sense is not necessarily true; consider folk tales and cultural aphorisms.

Messages from mass media and social media are distorted, unlike the normal communication we are accustomed to. We receive them without the benefits of knowing where they come from, who concocted them, and absent the little clues of honesty that we have learned to use in face-to-face communication (like a direct look into the eyes, or looking for signs of nervousness). Even Zoom conversations are distorted because they change the rhythms of normal conversation.

When distorted or incomplete messages that come from mass and social media are repeated in normal talk, they may become "true" for the purposes of that conversation. For example, one person says that covid shots can give you the disease, and the other remarks that her friend, a nurse, says she has seen several people sickened by the shot. If the conversationalists think they understand each other, that message takes on credibility.

As social media peppers cyberspace with messages about virtually everything (see the Democrat- Gazette's "Not Real News"), what is and isn't a lie really does seem debatable. Messages take on credibility through the process of people talking to each other.

These are dangerous times for the truth, partly because of the conflation of mass messages and everyday talk. When "not real news" becomes true in everyday communications, correcting it is very difficult, because this misinformation becomes part of what people know and what they think members of their community know.

Because cable news attempts to correct the lie about nanochips in the covid vaccine does not mean that the 20 percent of Americans who believe the lie will change their minds. That correction must become acceptable within the many particular speech communities that make up the linguistic context of America.

For the correct information to be incorporated into a speech community, it must be interpreted within the context of that community. Speech communities interpret information and make it part of taken-for-granted knowledge. So strong are these interpretations that for some, even after contracting covid and suffering with it, upon recovering they still say they would not have taken the shot because they don't want to be told what to do or believe.

To understand how a person can think this way, it is important to recognize that people hear the "truth" from inside their social worlds.

Jeff Nash is a retired sociologist living in Fayetteville.

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