Viewpoint: Words and Facts by Dr. Larry Burriss.


Words and Facts

A somewhat distraught friend was asking me the other day, with all of the conflicting news about the coronavirus, how are we supposed to know what to do. Unfortunately, even something as simple as whether or not to wear a face mask has become politicized, and it is the public that has ended up dazed and confused.
This means what people say is truth or reality may not, in fact, be objective truth and reality, and if history is any indication, truth may not have any special standing.
In 1963 President Kennedy’s gave a speech in Berlin in which he used the phrase, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” The words mean, in a symbolic sense, “I am a Berliner,” and everyone knew he was expressing unity with the people of that embattled city.
But an urban legend soon sprang up that Kennedy had made a grammatical mistake and was really saying, “I am a jelly doughnut.” After all, in America some people call a jelly doughnut a “Berliner.”
But of course we have to take the word in context. So when someone says, “I am a New Yorker,” we know they mean they are from the state or city, not that they are a magazine.
So despite all evidence to the contrary, the “jelly doughnut” urban legend continues to circulate.

Larry Burriss, a professor in Middle Tennessee State University’s College of Mass Communication and president of the Tennessee Journalism Hall of Fame, welcomes the crowd before the induction ceremonies at the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters conference in Murfreesboro for the Tennessee Journalism Hall of Fame. (MTSU photo by Andrew Oppmann)

Unfortunately, this kind of distortion is becoming more and more prevalent, and in some cases seems to be actual public policy. By way of example, just look at all of the supposed experts giving us conflicting stories.
Since the truth seems open to debate, my thought is neither side can be absolutely certain they have the truth at all.
So let’s make the dubious assumption both liberals and conservatives honestly believe what they are telling us about, well, face masks, even if their stories conflict with each other. If you’re worried, then choose the safest course of action, and wear a mask. If you’re not particularly worried, pick the choice that seems most reasonable to you.
I’m Larry Burriss.