Fake News and the willing suspension of disbelief

There is a scene in the film GalaxyQuest where Tim Allan’s character, an actor who portrays a “Shatner-esque” starship Captain, has to explain to a race of aliens (called the Thermians) that the signals they have received from Earth and which they have used to model their entire civilization, were not archival records but but a science fiction drama designed to entertain rather than inform. The “Thermians” have no concept of fiction in their society. As a result all information to them is either true or false with no grey areas in between. They have never developed a capacity to suspend their disbelief and so, perversely, they believe everything.

This is an amusing plot twist in the film but it highlites a fundamental characteristic of human society, we lie! We lie for all sorts of reasons, personal gain, politeness; some people might even argue that language itself with its use of metaphor to describe our environment is an ongoing exercise in lying. Thus, communication itself could be seen as lying. But here we are referring to “Storytelling”, the creative art of fiction spoken or written for the entertainment of the author and possibly others.

While storytelling and the other creative arts are correctly recognized for their achievements a basic truth about them is that they are built on lies. Authors deliberately create situations and settings which have never existed. They squeeze the passage of years into a couple of lines or move a character at the speed of ink from one place to another. And, we the audience, the reader, the viewer accept this. We participate in the charade by suspending our disbelief so we can fly on dragons or walk across quiet English lawns or fight in great battles. In a sense stories free us from the “truth” of our lived environment for a short time to give us something better or sometimes, something worse.

Using suspension of disbelief to escape from reality is how our ancestors survived. Humans need food, water and a warm, safe place to sleep but beyond that we need recreation and relief which is engaging, intelligent and creative. People work during the day and then at night as the darkness would crowd in around them they told stories of to keep it away, stories of the boy who fooled a king and married a princess or a talking cat or a dwarf who could spin hay into gold but demanded a terrible price, the man who cheated death or great armies and wars fought for the hand of a beautiful woman or a lost sailor and his ship desperately trying to find their way home. And those stories made life easier and helped the listeners to stay warm and to get up the next day. Stories, lies, helped to make life more bearable because sometimes it is so hard people need that. And these stories forced their listeners to think, to build the golden walls of Troy and a giant wooden horse in their mind’s eye. They created fantastic vistas, armies of polished bronze and grotesque monsters. But together those little lies, of princes and kings, armies and battles helped to build the big lies. Big lies like “Duty” and “Respect” and “Justice”. Why? Because belief is a muscle which you have to exercise for it to be strong. And once you believe a boy with a sling can kill the most powerful warrior in the world you know that through teamwork you can achieve almost anything. So stories also help to build community and group cohesion.

And overtime those narratives have evolved as our lived environments have evolved so that we have adopted labels to understand who we are rather than looking to our lived environment. The state and the media have developed in tandem with middle class a notion of a “national identity” built around race, language, habits, sexuality, geography and a host of other factors. So that to be French or Greek or English or Indian or Chinese you acted in certain ways, spoke a certain way and ate certain foods to name only a few examples.

And this is where we get to Fake News. In the 20th century “narrative” changed from a survival strategy into a consumption choice. You can purchase your narrative to suit your income, religion, sexuality, gender identity, ethnicity or ideological outlook. We have been conditioned by our media and the state to accept simple narratives but without many people having the critical tools to evaluate the merit of those choices except in the narrowest context. Thus many people are falling back on their beliefs about how the world should work to “Trump” (!) facts. The success of fake news and conspiracy theorists such as Alex Jones, or hate mongers like Rush Limbaugh over the past decade is not a manifestation of a disenfranchised middle class or neo-nationalism or the result of jobs fleeing to Mexico and China.

The critical fact to understand about storytelling is that it is a sophisticated form of lying. The “best” storytellers are not the ones who tell the truth but the ones who can lie well enough to help us better understand the world we live in. By lying to us they help us understand the truth.

Fake News is in effect a series of bad lies. “Bad” because they are narrow and simple and do not serve to inspire or strengthen our communities. By sowing dissent they try to break our communities into smaller groups motivated by fear and narrow self-interest. In short these are bad stories because they show people failing to live up to their potential and failing to make transformative sacrifices.

As a species we need stories, we need “lies” to survive and we need the willing suspension of disbelief to build joy and laughter and fear and sorrow into our existence. Some people are willing to abuse the dynamic between narrative and lies and unless we recognize not all lies are equal and some deserve our respect while others do not, Fake News will continue plague our media and our communities spreading real fear and sorrow to everyone’s detriment.

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