Saturday, September 01, 2012
Fact and Fiction
We are living in a climate in which "fact-checking" and "truth" are increasingly important ideas. It appears as if our drifty, sound-byte society has finally begun to make us nervous. Frankly, it's about time.
However, the media's cure for our predicament might actually be worse than the disease. Meet the official "fact-checker". He or she goes to the-er, Internet - to find the most reliable information to refute or support the claim in question. But wait- what's this? There are fact-checkers checking the fact-checkers. Who is right? How do we know? This is not a brand-new phenomenon, of course. In the History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides takes a healthy jab at his contemporaries, claiming that "the conclusions I have drawn from the proofs quoted may, I believe, safely be relied on. Assuredly they will not be disturbed...by the compositions of the chroniclers that are attractive at truth's expense." And that was well over two thousand years ago.
The return volleys (fact-checkers checking fact-checkers checking fact-checkers...) make it obvious that even things that are supposed to be solid, concrete, and reliable are actually often unnervingly reliant on opinion and context. I am not trying to be wishy-washy. But the fact of the matter is, truth does not equal fact. And what we humans are hungry for, I propose, is truth.
Truth involves sustained attention and meditation. It means you have to cultivate things over a long period of time. It does not only involve the minute details, but also the overall situation to which those specifics are attached. Facebook, Twitter, ticker tape news, and (gasp!) maybe NPR (and I love NPR) - has efficiently trained us how to ingest our daily information in a piecemeal way. They chop it up into tiny, digestible portions so we can swallow it whole. I'm busy, I tell myself. At least I'm staying informed, I tell myself. Every day, however, I am increasingly of the opinion that being informed, at least in this narrow sense, has very little to do with being wise and living well.
Somehow, we need to slow down. We must chew our own food a bit more, and for longer. News is, of course, about being the first and fastest. It has always been this way, since fleet-footed messengers bore sealed missives over the mountains of Greece from one city to another. But these days, we are surrounded by a cacophony of a thousand and one messengers, all blurting out at once. It is impossible to catch anything but a phrase here or there. There is quality reporting. Don't get me wrong. But honestly, for much of the time, I just feel buffeted back and forth by windy talk. Perhaps you feel the same. Either way, it is clear that another round of Google News is not bound to be satisfying.
What do we need, then? One possible answer is robust, face-to-face conversations. Direct, eye-to-eye talk, during which we are forced to speak with both truthfulness and respect. This is especially important if we don't see eye-to-eye, in order to remind ourselves of their humanity and our own. It is much easier to spout off unfounded claims or release cruel invective when you cower behind the anonymity of a computer screen. Witness the puerile content of YouTube comments. Blech. I cannot read the comments section of anything now without sinning in my heart. Lead me not into that temptation, thank you very much.
Maybe another crucial part to the process of slowing down is to read more history. And really think of ourselves as a part of that greater story. What is new(s) is better seen in the light of the old. The more I read about what has come before, the more flippant the current media conversation or blogosphere buzz sounds.
Also, to read literature. Good books. The more we have a feel for genre, simile, metaphor, satire, irony, rhetoric, and the like - the better we will be able to sniff out whatever literary territory that an article, speech, or news clip is using (whether purposefully or inadvertently) - and judge it by its own lights. We seem to have lost our sense of literature, and with it our senses of humor, beauty, and story. This is a serious problem. If you can read a novel well, you have a better chance of grasping an argument in a speech, for example.
Finally, may we seek wisdom in all, to see humility walking hand-in-hand with conviction. In a most unlikely season for charitable words, may we remember and hasten the day when we will witness that:
"Lovingkindness and truth have met together
Righteousness and peace have kissed each other."(Psalm 85:10)