If Everyone is Lying, What Happens When Someone Tells the Truth?
"In narratives that are strongly based on the personal experience of the storyteller, the distinction between fiction and nonfiction is not only irrelevant—it’s misleading. After all, there is no such thing as a factual story; every story that is told, whether presented as fiction or nonfiction, is a creation by its author. And to be honest, I don’t really care if Hemingway actually took Fitzgerald to the Louvre to look at marble cocks. Perhaps he did, perhaps he didn’t. It’s a great story. And, like other stories in his Paris books, it rings true, and Hemingway could not have written it if he had not been a young man in Paris in the 1920s.
Human experience is vast and too slippery to grasp. Every potential story contains an unmanageable amount of data—including the possibility of infinite description. The art of storytelling is largely about choosing what is to be conveyed and—most importantly—what is to be left out. Even if all presented details are factual, the selection of details is, in itself, a highly subjective exercise. Assuming that Hemingway and Fitzgerald did have the cock conversation in Paris, would Scott have told the same story as Ernest? Stories do not serve the facts; their allegiance is entirely to the storyteller."
— All True Stories Are Fiction by Guillermo Erades
When I was a kid, my mother decided to take my sister and I on a trip to Lake Pleasant, just outside of Phoenix, AZ for a day at the beach. We drove to the lake in her AMC Gremlin and, once we saw the lake in sight, my mom decided to add an additional layer of “adventure” to the trip and take a shortcut down the mountain. Except that her shortcut wasn’t a road. She drove randomly into the desert on what looked like a road.
We drove for about thirty minutes further and further into empty terrain until we heard a loud pop and it was apparent that one of the tires had blown out.
As a kid prone to drama, I panicked and absolutely KNEW we were going to die. As an overachiever, I immediately went out to figure out how to get water out of a cactus. My mom was doing…something…while I was diligently foraging for sustenance when a red Ford pickup truck drove up from the opposite direction.
If you ask me (and since you’re reading this blog, you in essence did) we were saved by an older Native American man. If, on the other hand, you asked my mother, she’d tell you we were saved by a Mormon family of four. And we both would swear on our lives that our version of the truth is THE version of the Truth.
Erades tells us in his piece that that is not only fine but to be expected and he’s right. And, in the case of the Lost Gremlin in the Desert, who you believe has no more bearing on things of import than believing in Hemingway’s tale of showing marble dicks to Fitzgerald.
A black man is arrested and tossed into interrogation. He is tortured with electrodes attached to his balls until he falsely confesses to a crime he didn’t commit and because he is already a criminal, no one disputes the confession. The policemen that tortured him deny the claim that the black man was coerced in any way. The idea that “Stories do not serve the facts; their allegiance is entirely to the storyteller” is of little fucking comfort to the wrongfully convicted man on death row.
A man is on the confirmation seat for a position on the Supreme Court. A woman who worked for him comes forward to point out that he is a serial misogynist and a sexual harasser. He, of course, denies it. “Human experience is vast and too slippery to grasp” is just too goddamn flip to swallow in the face of decades of Supreme Court cases that lean to the Right of Common Sense.
It’s proven science that our memories not only suck but are like Silly Putty in their ability to stretch and reform the experiences we had into the experiences we think we had. It’s also apparent that our species is filled with liars and equally filled with people who just want to believe the lies. We believe the bullshit spawn by marketers and advertisers as they tell us that:
This juice is 100% purely squeezed juice.
This bacon was from pigs treated humanely.
This pill will make you lose belly fat in ten days.
Religion is ground zero for the manufacture of superstitious crap combined with our innate desire to be bathed in that crap until it cakes over our eyes and fills our nostrils. We LOVE to believe anything that gives us a sense of control or definitive outcomes or makes us feel safer and more secure.
Given this set of circumstances (we are liars who desperately want to believe that no one else is lying) where is line drawn between at least attempting to present the truth and openly pouring milk on your falsehood cereal? Is a storyteller or monologist who purports to be telling the truth to be held accountable for pulling the wool over our eyes for entertainment’s sake? Is the journalist who fudges the truth for a good story given a pass? Is bias no better or worse than outright deception?
I certainly don’t have the answers but I can make my own judgement calls. I believe there is a difference between the malleability of memory and the outright changing of the facts one knows to be true to facilitate an agenda. The line between the two is often fuzzy but the blanket acceptance of bullshit as simply “the way things are” is lazy and dangerous. For tellers of tales, as long as there is the caveat that the stories are for entertainment or a larger Truth being attempted, we should all expect some lies that reveal larger truths. The press should fight against the partisan, propaganda oriented stance and make sure that there are multiple sources corroborating all aspects of a story because we all really fucking want to believe in the truth of our news coverage.
It all boils down to choice. Do we accept the passive perspective that lying is just a part of who we are and ultimately trust no one's account? Do we relax our standards so much that truth really has no more meaning than belief? I hope not because too much is at stake to rely on each other to tell the truth by ourselves.