Thursday, 2 May 2019

Reality is messier than fiction

On Saturday morning a person I follow on Twitter (a farmer with 2742 followers) tweeted, “Morning gorgeous ones, I’ve had a run, currently enjoying coffee & water. The run took more effort than usual, it’s been 2 days with no running.” There are of course certain things missing from this account. Some of those things are the getting out of bed when it’s still dark, making the difficult decision to put on your training gear, going outside in the cold morning air, and staggering down the drive to the road with stiff joints and wooden limbs. These details are airbrushed out of the account because to include them would turn readers off. You want people to stay tuned, remain connected, and to pay attention to you. You don’t want to put something out there that is just a bummer.

This is what in the 1970s British author J.G. Ballard predicted would happen, though he did not exactly predict the invention of social media. In his formulation, people would sit down at the end of the day with the rushes of video taken during the day and curate them so that the most flattering version of themselves was available for public consumption. Ballard was prescient, though his vision didn’t extend to a text-based communication platform like Twitter. He would probably have been more comfortable with Instagram, which is largely image-based. Here, as on Twitter, people project the most appealing version of their lives in an effort to gain followers and to become, if they are very lucky, an “influencer”. Imagine not working and earning all your income just from posting things online …

We are all potential influencers because we all live by stories. They form the substance of our thoughts and dreams, and they sustain us in those dark hours when everything seems hopeless, the times we never talk about on social media. Language is innate for the species so the making of stories to sustain community and to buttress the ego in adversity is also innate. It’s so deeply ingrained in our psyches that we often don’t know where the story ends and reality begins. And it’s probably best that way. Sometimes life is so hard and we feel so hopeless that the only things that sustain us are images and ideas we have invented to make ourselves feel better.

Journalism is in the business of reality, however, which is why people attack journalists on Twitter so often. What people object to, often, when they moan about a news story or send an insulting message to a journalist is the fact that the news story that they have just read does not conform to the narratives that they believe guide reality in their part of the world. Their ingrained bias has been ignored by the journalist and because of the mismatch between the two versions of reality they are offended. They are angry. They are incensed. It’s perfectly natural, but often their anger has nothing to do with pointing out an error. Often it is because their way of seeing the world has been contradicted by events in that same world. What the journalist has done is like a friend telling a delusional psychotic that what they think they see or hear is a fabrication off their own minds. And so the ill person lashes out, as someone with schizophrenia does who has perversely decided not to take their medication because they think the doctors are trying to control them.

Sometimes there has actually been an error of fact made in a story, but this might be because the source the journalist has spoken with has an erroneous version of reality in their own mind. In this case it is hard to blame the journalist, though sometimes this may be warranted if the source has a view that is so idiosyncratic that this also has to be pointed out as a salient fact in the story. On the other hand, the journalist might be talking with that source because their editor told them to. And their editor might have a biased view of reality that he or she uses to control the story the journalist produces.

Not all news outlets have editors like this, of course, although it would be difficult to know, unless you were watching very closely, which outlets were biased and which were not. In general people support with money the outlets that most closely match their own biases, so there will always be more than one outlet in the marketplace producing stories and animating debates.

You can’t legislate to mandate that news always contains the truth. Who is to say what is true? Is there an official government panel that has opinions on everything from carbon dioxide emissions to the size of a middy of beer, that decides what is true and what is false in all cases? No, it would be unrealistic to have such a body and it would never work in any case. It would be too unwieldly to be practical. The necessity of a free media is far more important, for the protection of democracy, than is a commitment by all media outlets to so-called truth.

The upshot of all this is that the public sphere is a contested space. What it says is that democracy is messy, and so in future we might, in an effort to make our world more closely resemble some imaginary narrative, get rid of democracy altogether. Here’s an example of how this is becoming more likely. On the same Saturday, a person I follow on Twitter (with over 16,200 followers) tweeted, "Anybody who says they aren’t voting Labor cos they don’t like Shorten should have their voting rights revoked for basing their decision on such a stupid & irrelevant criterium. If that’s elitist I don’t care." People saying they don’t like Bill Shorten, the Opposition leader, offended her and so she lashed out irrationally (and misspelled a key word in her haste to get the message out). This Twitter user was so intent on making sure that Shorten wins the May election that she said something outrageous (because the more outrageous the comment, the more attention it gets from people in the community).

Fiction is much more compelling than the complex, difficult, contested, and contradictory stuff that we read in the newspapers everyday. It is neat and compelling and it starts and ends in logical places. It is predictable and comforting. It has pleasing narratives that more closely match the expectations we have in our story-oriented minds than the unwieldy morass of events that actually constitute reality.

Historians well know how hard reality can be, and so it is common for different practitioners of that craft to write histories of the same era that come to different conclusions. Or else they might differ in certain important respects. History is notable because along with mythology is it the first type of storytelling we have. The big difference between the two genres is that history is supposed to be based on fact (although an ancient Greek would have told you that his or her stories of Apollo and Minerva were also true). Of course, sometimes history is written merely to flatter the winner in the inevitable contest that it chronicles (humans are naturally aggressive animals, so wars are also intrinsic to the species). In these cases it is hard to distinguish between fact and fiction.

Today, at a time when we have won certain “inalienable” rights vis-√†-vis the people in charge of society’s government, we are more able to see those differences. But still we prefer the story to the history, the mythology to the fact. This built-in tendency is the one thing that might lead to our downfall. Unless we become more comfortable with the complexities of fact, we risk losing the ability to know what is fact and what is mere propaganda.

And how does an historian tweet? Here’s one that appeared on the same Saturday morning written by a young historian I follow who has 1148 followers. His words neatly tie up the two threads contained in this post and he shows that it is possible to engage with others on social media and also tell the truth. “I don’t know how I get myself out of bed at 5am in a Sat morning and start the day doing 70kg barbell squats and survive.” Touch√©!

Of course if I were writing a short story instead of journalism I would up the farmer’s Twitter followers and push down the historian’s. But life is not fiction, it is very different, always, in many important respects. It is more complex, less predictable, and infinitely strange.

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