A serious debate is stirring in politics, on social media, in the news, and on television. People from all walks of life are pondering the question and scholars will be sure to weigh in. The question hasn’t been argued as long as, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” But in today’s political climate, where everything is doubted and the truth is hard to come by, it’s an important and relevant question. Is the frequently used phrase alternative fact a valid concept, or is it an oxymoron?
To answer the question, we only need to look at the definition of each word in the phrase. That’s it… no further interpretation required because we’re dealing with language and actual definitions as set forth in the dictionary, not philosophy. In the phrase alternative fact, alternative appears as an adjective, which is a word that modifies or describes a noun (basically, a person, place or thing).
Alternative (adjective) has two basic definitions:
- Affording a choice of two or more things… mutually exclusive so that if one is chosen the other must be rejected.
- Employing or following nontraditional or unconventional ideas, methods, etc.; existing outside the establishment.
The other word in our phrase is fact.
Fact (noun) also has two basic definitions:
- Something that actually exists; reality; truth.
- A truth known by actual experience or observation; something known to be true.
Now let’s put the words together and see what we’re actually saying when we use the phrase alternative fact. Since the two basic meanings of fact are pretty close, let’s deal specifically with the two meanings of alternative.
Using the first definition of alternative, the phrase alternative fact literally describes reality, or something that constitutes a real or actual thing and can be verified, as having two or more mutually exclusive meanings, one of which must be rejected. Translation: it describes a real and actual thing or circumstance that has already been verified as real (and therefore has a specific defined meaning) as having two or more meanings, one of which must be rejected. Say what?
Using the second definition of alternative, the phrase alternative fact literally describes reality as unconventional or existing outside the establishment. Translation: it describes an actual thing or circumstance that has already been verified as real based on experience or observation (and is therefore bound to precedent) as not conforming to rule or precedent. Are we seeing a pattern here?
With both definitions, the meaning of the noun is completely contradictory to the meaning of the adjective being used to describe it, much like it is when describing a glass of hot ice water. It just so happens that we have a word in the English language that we use to describe a figure of speech that’s incongruous and contradictory with itself… We call it an oxymoron!
So the mystery is solved. By definition, an alternative fact is not a valid concept. A valid concept is defined as, “A general notion or idea that is so constructed that… its conclusion cannot be denied without contradiction.” An alternative fact, by definition, IS a contradiction! So now, maybe we can all get back to calling facts facts, and we can agree that an alternative fact is really more of a lie.