Inspired by President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, linguistics professor Chris Kennedy will be teaching a spring quarter class called Truth on the nature of truth and lies in public discourse.
Kennedy had planned to teach a course on cryptography, but told the Chicago Tribune that he thought that would be “frivolous” after Trump’s election, and decided instead to use linguistic analysis to explore the polarization of national political conversation.
Kennedy is especially concerned about the Internet as a platform for “echo chambers” and the dissemination of biased or incomplete information.
“The way that communication works is that the things we say are all uttered against some background of shared beliefs and context,” he said. Kennedy sees that shared context breaking down in the current climate, and worries that so-called fake news has gained traction because of the fragmentation of healthy public discourse.
The class will cover the distinction between subjective and objective truth, examine contemporary case studies, and “look at the mechanics, and the role that notions like truth and evidence play at the very basic level of the way communication works,” Kennedy said. “And, given that role and structure, how it’s possible to take advantage of and manipulate for the purpose of getting people to take on some belief or another.”
Citing Salena Zito’s claim in The Atlantic that Trump’s supporters took his comments during the campaign “seriously, not literally,” and that liberals underestimated Trump’s base of support because they took his words at face value without considering their meaning, Kennedy said media outlets need to communicate in ways more accessible to broader audiences.
“Tailoring your message to your audience is part of what got us here in the first place,” he said, referring to the news media. “Our democracy is built around the idea that people all have a stake in and have some mechanism for contributing to conversation.”
Kennedy said he is worried that decreased faith in the news media could pave the way for the breakdown of democratic processes.
“The more people think the voting process is out of whack, based on repeated [false] claims, the more likely it is they won’t engage with it…or they’ll be more likely to believe claims that results are bogus, if somebody who gets voted out of office makes that claim. We see that happening in other countries that are not democracies, where results of elections are just bypassed by people in power,” he said.
In Kennedy’s view, some manipulation of facts for partisan advantage always occurs in politics, but Trump represents “an extreme example,” and widespread public distrust of the president’s claims could have far-reaching consequences.
“The more you undermine trust and belief in institutions, the more you undermine people’s idea that what policy makers are saying has evidential basis…it undermines the basis for the system itself,” he said.
“Truth” is one class in a new series called Signature Courses, started by Christopher Wild, Master of the Humanities in the College. Kennedy said the series aims to get people interested in different disciplines in the humanities by offering courses on current topics without prerequisites.