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Face the Counter-Facts: Trump, COVID, Denial, and Brooklyn Nine Nine

I’m fixing to spoil season 7 of Brooklyn Nine-Nine by revealing the twist at the end of season 6. The spoiler is only a little bit though. My focus is on a side-story featuring Sergeant Terry Jeffords, played by the hunky and hilarious real-life Terry Crews, who stumbles onto perhaps the greatest anti-cliche of all time. Before we talk about the anti-cliche, though, let’s talk about the cliche. 

The cliche offender of this particular episode is, unfortunately, the motorcycle riding, leather wearing Detective Rosa Dias. The cliche of concern? 

Face. the. Facts.

You know face the facts. Someone said it to you the last time you tried to be optimistic about something. You said, “oh I know they’re just angry. We’ll get back together once they calm down.”

And then your “live laugh love” cheeseball best friend was like, “you’ve gotta face facts. They’re not coming back.”

In the Season 6 Finale, Terry has just discovered that after years of being the second-in-command of the beloved goofball Brooklyn precinct, the New York police department doesn’t have enough money to pay him now that he has increased in rank to Lieutenant. As a result, Terry receives news that he will be transferred to Staten Island (the phrase “will be” is important later). Staten Island is of course a strategic choice because it is largely considered the armpit of New York according to most city dwellers. 

I don’t really know anything about this other than what I hear because I live in what city dwellers call “upstate NY,” or what upstate NYers call, “central NY,” and therefore pretty much all of NY City seems like an armpit to me. I swear to god… that whole city smells like urine, gasoline, and cheese sandwiches, not always in that order.

So Terry decides, in a very specific linguistic move that will occupy our attention for the rest of this podcast, that he’s going to just outright refuse to refuse to acknowledge the transfer. Yes, I said that right; he’s going to refuse to refuse to acknowledge the transfer. Which is not the same as saying he’s refusing to acknowledge the transfer.

Let’s observe…

Maybe we need to refresh exactly what the word “real” means in this context.

For something to be real it has to actually be happening or have happened and any remote possibility that it could be happening otherwise needs to be eliminated. That Terry has received a letter from the precinct has happened. The letter has arrived. The letter is a fact. That Terry WILL BE transferred to another precinct is, however, NOT real. It is perhaps likely. Probable. Impending. But it is not a certainty. Why? Because things in the future aren’t a fact; they aren’t certainty. That’s why we call it, like, the future. 

When people start speaking about the future as if it is real–which, we all do all the time; anytime we make a plan, decide to worry about something, we’re in the future–when we do that, we are said to be living in a counterfactual or hypothetical situation–also known as the “as if.” As in, “act as if” you are having a good time or “behave as if” this city doesn’t smell exactly like a cheese sandwich.

We live in the counter-factual all the time. We worry about what’s gonna happen, we fantasize about what’s gonna happen, we think about what would have happened if that one thing that happened hadn’t happened. And we are all perfectly capable, one might even say required to, live in that counter-factual while we also live in other counter-factuals and all the while remain firmly grounded in the factual–what is actually happening. 

Just because I think about what would have happened if my mom were still alive or what she would think if she could listen to my podcast doesn’t mean that I go get in my car and drive to see my very dead mother. Despite what our cliche-riddled politicoculturescape tells us, we are perfectly equipped to face the facts while not facing the facts all at the same time.

Yet, when Terry very explicitly announces to the entire world that he has decided to acutely take up this condition of existence, everyone starts to treat him like a weirdo.

In the context of the show, Terry’s choice is just kind of comedic relief to parallel the main storyline of the episode–getting Commissioner Kelly to admit to illegal wiretapping. 

It’s supposed to be funny that Terry is self-aware about being in denial about the quote-unquote “reality” of his situation. That’s why when he says, “I’m not in denial; I’m in denial,” Captain Holt responds by asking, “is Jeffords broken?” Holt’s is a rhetorical question; he knows that Terry is not, in fact, broken he asks as if Terry is currently Broken. Holt is in a counter-factual about Terry’s counter-factual.

What we have here is a triple layered contradiction that at first seems just like comedic relief. The superficial and obvious read it, “Jeffords is being ridiculous.” Except he’s not. Jeffords, is in fact, the most logical one of the group.

Think about it: Jeffords is both admitting and not admitting that something terrible is going to happen–leaving the precinct. Rosa wants him to just admit that it’s terrible. But Terry refuses. But he doesn’t simply refuse by saying “I’m not in denial; nothing is wrong.” That wouldn’t be funny. Plenty of people convince themselves things aren’t wrong all of the time. Every one of us, as mortal beings, is currently plummeting toward our own inevitable death, and yet we spend our days sitting on couches watching TV or counting beans in our cubicle. We live life as if tomorrow were guaranteed–I’m just, like, watching some TV today; tomorrow I will definitely do the fill-in-blank-thing that really matters. 

And we live life as if tomorrow were NOT guaranteed–hence we sit on the couch living vicariously through fictional orfictionalized characters whose dramatic and eventful lives give us refuge from our own disappointing fallibility.

In short: you are Terry Jeffords. You’re not in denial; you’re in deNIAL.

Terry is using a rhetorical figure called antanaclasis, don’t ask me to pronounce the Greek but basically it means “reflection” and “anti,” or “against” klásis “breaking”–a single word or phrase is repeated, but in two different senses.

Some examples from Wikipedia:

The idea behind antanaclasis is so endemic to human nature it’s absolutely shocking how absent it is from our regular speech patterns; something can be one thing and also be another thing. We don’t like that. It fucks with our head. But it’s a fundamental truth of human existence. Hence, we like to cite dictionaries for the meanings of words instead of using rhetorical tropes to play with language and give expression to all of the complexities of the human condition.

Oh, there’s another denial: we run around acting like words mean a specific thing when, in fact, words just mean other words. 

For Jeffords, there’s denial–which is the straight up convincing oneself thoroughly that “nothing is wrong.” For example, when people say that Black men are incarcerated at alarmingly disproportionate rates because, well, they’re criminals. That’s thorough and resolute denial that there is a systemic racist logic underlying America’s criminal justice system. Or when my liberal siblings in rhetorical arms give me the whole, “anything as long as it’s Democrat.” Maybe, but let’s be real, Biden sucks as a candidate. Su-u-u-cks. He’s not Trump; I’ll give you that; but let’s just call a spade a spade and not put glitter on the neoliberal patriarchy.

Then, there’s deNIAL, which is what Terry is currently articulating and experiencing. What is that? The disavowal of one reality while simultaneously living in that same reality.

Now, when Holt asks, rhetorically, if Jeffords brains is broken it seems like he’s mocking Terry’s dissociation of one form of denial from another. For “logical” people, like Holt, denial is just denial. But we all know that isn’t true; we just use cliches to prevent us from coming to grips with the reality of multiple layers of denial as a mechanism for survival.

When Holt asks, “is Jeffords broken,” however, he actually makes Jeffords’ point. Holt knows Terry isn’t broken–he is of sound mind and body as they say. But Jeffords’ strange use of language also seems broken. Holt, like Jeffords, is currently existing in two states of reality at once and neither is more or less real: Jeffords isn’t broken but he’s also broken.

Holt and Jeffords both exist, as well all do, in what we might call factual and counterfactual realities; the real of the “actually is” and the realm of the “what if?”

Rosa, in the meantime, is firmly committed to getting Terry to live exclusively in the realm of the factual–the what is. And so she deploys a cliche: “you’ve got to face facts.”

Rosa tells Terry he needs to face facts; but does he, in fact, need to face facts? Nothing has in fact happened; the transfer is in the future. Terry is upset about something that might happen. But there aren’t really any facts. And even if Terry went ahead and faced these so-called facts, what would improve about his behavior? What if he’s already faced the facts and decided that this is his response? What’s wrong with dealing with impending disappointment exactly how he’s dealing with it?

On top of all that, Rosa also contradicts herself in the scene. When Terry tries to change the topic to wind, Rosa tells him he’s got to stop avoiding and start facing facts. But then when she spots the subject of their current tail, she switches the topic herself.

What Rosa has proven is that it’s not, in fact, urgent for Terry to face facts. If it were, then getting Terry to admit to his quote unquote “reality” would be more important than pursuing the target.

But Rosa pursues the target. Which proves–and this is a good lesson for next time you’re acting all Terry Jeffords, which you are very justified and reasonable to do and someone decides to Rosa Diaz all over you–that:

someone else’s need for you to “face facts” is almost always about them not wanting to face a reality in which one always faces more than one reality. Terry choosing to face multiple realities isn’t a problem for Terry; it’s a problem for Rosa.

Again, we’re not talking about someone being in the singular kind of denial. If someone has just straight up convinced themselves they don’t have a heroin addiction or that white privilege isn’t real–go ahead, shove their face in some facts. It won’t make much of a difference; but it’s a reasonable reaction.

But Jeffords isn’t in denial; he’s in deNIAL. 

Now Jake has it figured out. “Do you Terry.” That’s exactly what I would say. Now, obviously Jake is saying it as a dismissal to get back to doing what he wants to do–hence Rosa’s “no it’s not an actual problem–just more self-destructive.” But Jake’s reaction accidentally turns out to be the right response. Terry is an adult. He got bad news. He’s living in a liminal space between the sadness of it being real and the optimism of it not being real. He’s not a deviant–he’s just unusually explicit about what all of us experience in most situations in which we are catastrophizing about a hypothetical that nonetheless feels real. Jake does not need to peddle the “face facts” cliche on Terry. It’s quite obvious that he has already faced them and made his decision.

By the end of episode 18, I had expected some kind of a come-to-Jesus moment when Rosa gives Terry some moving cliche speech and Terry just breaks down and admits that he’s been in singular denial the whole time. 

I was pleasantly surprised when, on the contrary, everyone gets on board with simply living in denial-denial alongside Terry. 

Now the closing line–when Terry comes out of both kinds of denial and finally says “this sucks” in a very literal acknowledgement of quote-unquote “reality” would be trite and obvious if it weren’t for two things. 1) his literal statement doesn’t have any kind of “a ha” moment behind it. It’s understated, almost insignificant. I like that setup because it reinforces that there was never really denial in the singular sense happening at all; there was only denial deNIAL–the refusal to refuse to acknowledge the transfer. 

Terry finally speaking literally about his situation–instead of counter-factually–isn’t some sudden admission or awareness of the truth of the matter. He knew all along; it’s just now he is speaking of it as factual instead of previously when he was speaking of it as counter-factual. But neither is more or less true. He was always perfectly aware of both. 

Terry’s barely an admission admission is underwhelming for another important reason: right after Jeffords finally speaks literally about his situation, Holt delivers the news that Terry is able to stay at the Nine-Nine because–Season 7 spoiler alert–Holt is being demoted by his arch rival now police commissioner Madeleine Wunch.

Holt’s revelation vindicates Terry’s behavior all along–if Holt could reveal that what Terry feared most–the transfer–isn’t happening then it means that what Rosa called “the facts” were in fact counter-counter-factual all along. Let me lay it out:

  • Factual: Terry is leaving the precinct
  • Counter-Factual: Terry acts as if he’s not leaving the precinct
  • Counter-Counter-Factual: Holt now changes the factual circumstance to Terry is not leaving, which reveals the original “factual” statement to have always been counter-factual because Terry was already living in a future that wasn’t certain.

Therefore, Rosa’s advice to “face facts” was always bad advice, not only because Terry WAS facing facts the way a human being does (by believing more than one thing contradictory thing at one time) but also because Terry was never dealing with facts; he was dealing with a future likelihood. 

If Rosa had said, “Terry, come on, face your future likelihood” then her appeal for Terry to “just face the truth” falls flat. “Face the facts” only ever works because it is a cliche. “Face your future likelihood” would be the same as Rosa saying, “come on Terry, face the non-truth.” See? Doesn’t make any sense. But that’s exactly what anyone is saying whenever they tell someone to “face the truth” or “face facts” about a situation that, in fact, has everything to do with prediction, feeling, personal interpretation, and future probability. 

Now if we’re talking about literal facts–a factual-factual–that’s a different story

For example, when someone tells our President, “hey, the facts are that Coronavirus is very contagious and it is currently spreading at a very well-calculated and non-hypothetical but extremely real rate of 7:1”–that is an actual fact, not a future probability counterfactual.

The statement “COVID is going to “kill millions of people” might be a counter-factual but the current rate of contagion–based on empirical evidence about what has already happened–is a reality. Therefore, if the President were to say, “don’t test people it’s bad for my re-election,” then that would be a good example of someone actually refusing to face facts, not because they’re in denial, but because they’re in deNIAL. Except now that denial denial isn’t about someone’s personal feelings as a grown adult; it’s the lives and deaths of hundreds of millions of people. 

But if Trump had hypothetically done all of that–would saying he needs to “face the facts” or telling him to “face the facts” made any difference? 

No. You know how we know? It did happen and people did tell him and what did he do? He refused to refuse to acknowledge the data provided to him months and months prior to any overt action by the administration. 

According to Business Insider–a source too neoliberal to be spreading fake anti-trump news–although to be fair they’re mostly quoting Politico, whom I trust, but whom I would understand you might want to fact-check:

In the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak in the US, President Donald Trump’s main focus was on keeping the number of infections low…For that reason, Trump did not push to ensure adequate testing capabilities…The president had made clear: The lower the numbers on coronavirus, the better for the president, the better for his potential reelection this fall.

Now, there’s a lot of interpretations at which one could arrive following that short excerpt of a much longer story. 

But the one thing none of us should be concluding about this situation is that Trump “refused to face facts”–which I am very tired of the media outlets saying because it isn’t doing what they want it to do. Or perhaps it’s doing exactly what they want it to do, which is to say basically nothing.

Trump 100% absolutely faced the facts. He faced the facts and decided how to act, which was to believe that the facts were true and deny them at the same time–probably both internally and externally–he’s not in denial. He’s in denial deNIAL. Except he’s not a side character of a television show, as much as you making memes about him continues to peddle that insidious explanation for his behavior. The President’s denial denial becomes all of our denial denial. And running around urging him on Twitter to “face facts” is about as useful as Rosa’s appeal to Terry. Because denial denial isn’t a factual contradiction–it’s a very powerful rhetorical strategy.

I’m going to say this once, for anyone from the news who might be listening, and I’m going to say it very slowly for the purposes of being quoted easily in a sound bite:

THE PROBLEM WITH TRUMP IS NOT THAT HE DOESN’T FACE FACTS. THE PROBLEM IS THAT HE FACES FACTS. AND THESE ARE THE DECISIONS THAT HE MAKES.

In the words of Jake Peralta, Trump “does him.” And that’s why we’re all going to die. And also, everything is going to be fine. 

rhetoriclee
rhetoriclee

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One Comment

  1. Laurie Laurie

    Great episode — learning a lot about language and laughing. Two things I really need right now. Proud to be a rhetoric nerd!

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