To Prof. Christopher Kennedy, words matter. So in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, the University of Chicago linguist has been disturbed to see terms like “fake news” and “alternative facts” enter the popular discourse.Kennedy saw this shift not only as a threat to democracy, but as a dangerous reconfiguration of how we understand truth.
“The question was: ‘What can I do? What role do I play in thinking about that?’” Kennedy said. “If you’re someone who studies meaning, then maybe talking about the role that truth plays in meaning and communication will help other people think about this stuff in a richer way.”
Kennedy, the William H. Colvin Professor of Linguistics, will explore the nature of truth—how it is built into the ways we communicate, and how those processes create sets of shared beliefs—during his keynote address during UChicago’s annual Humanities Day on Oct. 20. The speech, which will begin at 11 a.m. in Mandel Hall, is one of 40 presentations on Saturday showcasing the richness and variety of scholarship from UChicago’s Division of the Humanities.
Of particular interest to Kennedy is the way that social media has become a megaphone for distortions or outright lies.
“It’s not like people started lying and BS-ing in 2016,” Kennedy said. “I would be shocked if that hasn’t been going on as long as people have been talking. But what are the differences now? That’s one of them.”