2016, the year of bad language
It’s been a surprising year in politics with victories for the right in the EU referendum and the US election that few saw coming. Because of this, political lexicon has dominated word of the year lists. Here are the words that have defined the new...
Only a year ago Oxford Dictionaries chose the face with tears of joy emoji as its word of the year, signaling the more frivolous mood of the time, and also suggesting that we were moving past a conventional use of language and towards something more playful, emotional, and international. How things have changed. Oxford Dictionaries's word of 2016, 'post-truth', suggests the alphabet is anything but done for and that rather than moving past language, society is instead moving past facts. The landscape is changing fast and language is changing with it.
Here are the words that have defined 2016:
Rather than merely another synonym for lying, this is an adjective to describe today's circumstances in which the act of lying is taken for granted by the public. In much of contemporary politics (and much journalism and entertainment too) the use of honesty and facts is less effective than appealing to our emotions and beliefs. Such are the conditions of post-truth.
Of course, emotions and personal creeds have always played a huge role in the formation of public opinion, and we may well have been living in a post-truth world for a decade or more. But this year, it has been formalized. Given the ubiquity of the internet (this is also the "post-internet" age), for the first time in civilization we have access to all the facts: and subsequently many of us have renounced facts. It's hard to escape the feeling that a lot of us don't want to hear the truth.
While the rise of post-truth politics is directly linked to the propensity of politicians to tell bigger and bigger lies, it's also worth noting that the figurehead of post-truth, Donald Trump, owes much of his fame to reality television: a format that has been chipping away at our belief in reality for quite some time now.
Maybe it's not all bad. British journalist Peter Pomerantsev, an expert on Russian politics and post-truth (which he has been warning us about for a good couple of years now) acknowledged in Granta this month that "there is some sort of teenage joy in throwing off the weight of facts — those heavy symbols of education and authority, reminders of our place and limitations." If the facts don't matter then anything is possible.
Here's another term connected to the last one. During the US election, the Washington Post meticulously checked 168 claims made by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail and gave its Four-Pinocchio Rating — signaling the most dishonest and flagrant lie — to 59 of Trump's claims and seven of Clinton's. In the quest for truth, the Pinocchio Rating is your friend.
Other distinctions awarded by the Washington Post include the UPSIDE-DOWN PINOCCHIO, indicating a flip-flop or reversal of one's previous position, and the GEPPETTO CHECKMARK, indicating complete honesty.
It became very clear this year that our social media feeds — and we're really talking about Facebook here — share opinions with us that we're likely to agree with and hide those that we aren't. In this way, feeds are like echo chambers, bouncing our voices back to us while concealing the great complexity of public opinion. And now that we find most of our news through social networks, this has created a huge problem: we have become completely disconnected from the world outside of our small and particular bubbles. In the US, especially, many on the left had hardly considered the possibility they would lose the election; and having lost it they have found it impossible to agree on why.
This is exactly what it sounds like: made-up and misleading stories, often intended to discredit a political opponent, spread across social networks under the guise of genuine news. It's the dark side of clickbait — a form of propaganda dressed up as journalism.
We suggested earlier this year that a youthful, magical counterculture was emerging in the worlds of pop and spirituality (it's also a subject that Teen Vogue has been covering in quite some depth), with a focus in their case on the modern witchcraft movement. So in youth culture, as in other parts of society, there has been in places a retreat from the rational and scientific in favor of the old ways of thinking.
As of late there has been more and more discussion of the idea that we're living not in reality, but in a computer-generated simulation of reality: essentially that we're trapped in the Matrix. That is simulation theory. In the spring, Neil DeGrasse Tyson argued that this was likely to be the case. In the summer, Elon Musk claimed, "There's a billion to one chance we're living in base reality." In the autumn, it was reported in the New Yorker that two Silicon Valley billionaires (Musk is rumored to be one) are funding scientists in an effort to break us free from our cosmic virtual reality.
It's an idea that can also be found in the most talked-about show of the year, Westworld, the central premise of which is that the characters are living in a make-believe world and cannot tell whether they are people or just robots with an artificial intelligence (and, in a pointed piece of casting, Musk's ex-wife Talulah Riley plays one of the robots).
Simulation theory is a radical idea; however in its renunciation of reality, it has much in common with the renunciation of facts in a post-truth world. But, as for the reasons why in 2016 the jettisoning of facts by politicians has coincided with a growing interest in magic amongst teenagers and a questioning of reality by billionaire Silicon Valley entrepreneurs — these have yet to be satisfyingly explained by anyone. We find ourselves at a strange philosophical crossroads in history.
In spring, Microsoft launched a chatbot — meaning a computer program that can simulate a conversation with a person (much like the robots on Westworld, only without a physical body) — named Tay that was supposed to speak like a 19-year-old American girl and to learn from her conversations with other Twitter users. "The more you chat with Tay," the software company explained, "the smarter she gets."
But on her very first day she had to be taken back offline after trolls taught her to say things like "race war now!!!" and "Donald Trump is the only hope we've got" and "WE'RE GOING TO BUILD A WALL, AND MEXICO IS GOING TO PAY FOR IT" and, aside from a brief reappearance, offline is where she has remained. Tay was intended to explore and learn to speak the language of today, and in most ways she was a failure. However, all those months ago, she certainly was able to foreshadow what was coming in politics and online discourse with an eerie and oracular accuracy.
2016 threw up a lot of gloomy words reflecting rather gloomy times. But while the political discourse was often backwards-looking, much of our vocabulary had a futuristic feel to it, in keeping with how quickly things continue to change. So let's see what 2017 brings.
Text Dean Kissick