Confusing Facts with Meaning

A risk at all times, but even more acute now.

A little over a week ago we had a kerfuffle over the departure of a number of senior administrative staff from the US State Department. Remember that? I know. It seems so long ago. A quick refresher: on Jan 26, four career Foreign Service officers, each of whom served under both Democratic and Republican administrations left the agency. As it turns out, it is customary for officers at this level to tender their resignations at the time a new administration comes in. It is then up to the new President to decide whether to accept the resignations or invite the officers to stay on.

As subsequently reported by Aaron Blake in The Washington Post, this is such a routine case of inside baseball that no one should have even known about it, much less cared. But, we are discovering daily, there is very little that is routine or customary in Washington these days.

What is especially interesting to me is how this illustrates quite well what happens when we confuse information (or “facts”) with the meaning we assign to that information.

(Just to be clear, I’m not talking about “alternative facts” or fake news here — neither of these were at issue in this story. Maybe that will be the topic of another post.)

No one seems to dispute what happened: these senior people at State did indeed hand in their resignations and the President accepted them. What got reported though was quite a bit more, and it was different, depending on which side of the political spectrum you more comfortably inhabit.

From the left, represented by outlets like Slate and Daily Kos, we heard things like “an unusual degree of disarray inside the government” and “perhaps just the tip of the iceberg … of federal employees who value their sanity and integrity.” On the right, we heard how the departures were evidence that the swamp was at last being drained, as promised. In some places, it was even represented that they were “fired” by the President.

From his headline through to the end of the article, Blake does a good job of teasing all this apart for the reader and demonstrates quite well how the meaning we assign and the interpretations we make of the same information can lead us to fundamentally different conclusions.

It’s a great reminder of the importance of slowing down in this hyper-partisan time to make sure we’re talking about the same thing. In this case, not the “facts” but the meaning we’re giving them and to consider whether we might be conflating the facts we choose to see with the interpretation we are making of them.