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Ctrl. Alt. Delete.

25/01/2017 11:56

The phrase 'alternative facts' is preoccupying most of us at the moment. Provision of 'alternative facts' about the numbers of supporters attending the Inauguration of Donald Trump as 45th President of the United States; 'alternative facts' about the numbers attending the Women's March of protest the next day. We've felt outrage at the differences between what we've seen and what we've been told: photos showing that the crowds at the Inauguration were disappointing set against PR spin claiming they were the largest ever seen, modified later with a reference to the millions who watched worldwide, online or on TV.

More locally, where I live, politics in Northern Ireland have imploded or perhaps 'gone up in smoke' once more following the provision of facts, alternative facts and general bewilderment about identifying the truth in the question of the Renewable Heat Incentive energy and heating scheme. The NI Assembly has collapsed, elections loom, and everyone is even less sure than ever whom to trust, for whom to vote.

It's like restarting a computer, trying to get your head around whether you're being told the truth or not in news media. Once you start thinking about it enough, you can become convinced you're going mad: that you never really know the truth and maybe that truth itself might not exist at all. Maybe it's not for nothing that the Oxford English Dictionary word of the year for 2016 was Post Truth. Control, Alt, Delete: those who ration or recreate the truth do so to control us and our reactions, providing alternative facts in order to delete anything they don't want us to know.

So far, so Orwellian: reminiscent of the Ministry of Truth in the novel written as a frightening, warning symbol of a dystopian, dysfunctional future, 1984.

But hold on a minute. Don't we all present alternative facts about how our lives are going? How many of us have tripped and fallen, only to jump up and say we're fine, even if we feel like crying? How many of us use that same 'I'm fine' to disguise all kinds of illness, sadness, emptiness, despair? It's there for us in the ready-made social formula. Visiting my GP years ago with a routine illness, I was asked how I was, and accidentally replied 'Fine thanks, how are you?' instead of croaking that I thought I had some kind of chest infection. I've got so good at the 'Fine thanks,' thing that it's become a default. I've seen the internet campaign that it's 'okay not to be okay', and I agree with what it means; yet I persist with my 'Oh, fine...' reply even when things aren't really fine at all.

The most dangerous alternative facts are the ones we present to ourselves. Governments, organisations or leaders believing in their own omnipotence or infallibility are infinitely more dangerous than those which simply apply a bit of PR spin to knowing they're doing their best with sometimes flawed results. Telling yourself that things are fine, it's all okay, when those closest to you can clearly see it isn't, is a treacherous alternative where the facts which you believe in aren't factual at all. The wake-up calls aren't nice. The person who asks you in a blunt but concerned way whether you've looked in the mirror recently when you say you feel okay. The person who knows you haven't actually had a proper rest in months - that you've even perfected the art of fooling the Breathe app on your watch that you're being mindful when you're actually finishing off the domestic chore or piece of work you were doing when the app kicked in. You're pretending to yourself that you're making your life better, while all the while getting on with tasks which make you tired - just making your movements almost imperceptible even to yourself.

'Alternative facts are just lies,' Guardian columnist Jill Abramson said in response to the presentation by Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway of 'facts' about the inauguration crowds. So maybe when we present alternatives to some of the harsher facts about our own lives, maybe in the personal spin of social media and our attempts to turn the grind of life into the glow of lifestyle, making our lives seem so much more stylish, glamorous and enjoyable than they really are, we're simply telling lies. And maybe when we fall and jump up instantly and say we're fine, even if the only person we have to convince is ourselves, we're telling lies again. And again. Until maybe we're controlling and deleting the more unpalatable aspects of the truth so often that we're really not sure where the truth lies any more and we need that blunt but sympathetic reminder to help us find it.

Just like Winston Smith in Orwell's Ministry of Truth, are we all rewriting our own histories to fit with the party line of 'being fine'?

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