Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Truth and Nothing But...a Good Story

A few months ago, a friend of mine who leans to the right politically shared a post on Facebook that started out like this:

Professor Joseph Olson of Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota, points out some interesting facts concerning the last Presidential election:
  • Number of States won by: Obama: 19 McCain: 29
  • Square miles of land won by: Obama: 580,000 McCain: 2,427,000
  • Population of counties won by: Obama: 127 million McCain: 143 million
  • Murder rate per 100,000 residents in counties won by: Obama: 13.2 McCain: 2.1

You may have seen this post, or even shared it yourself. By now, it is well known that it is a hoax, an urban legend, and almost every "fact" in it is false. By false, I mean provably incorrect, wrong, intentionally misleading, the opposite of the truth. A lie of the vicious variety. Thinking that my friend, an intelligent, honorable, well-educated man, must have just posted this Internet hoax without checking it out first, I commented on his post, helpfully (I thought) pointing out his mistake, including several links proving the thing is false.

But my friend simply deleted my comment and left the original post as it was, continuing to garner many "likes" from his like-minded friends. Incredulous, I commented again, this time asking, "Doesn't it bother you just a little that your post is utterly untrue?" His response was devastatingly brief, "Not one bit."

At this point I could have unfriended and written this guy off as just another whacked out Republican. But a few weeks later another friend, this time a left-leaning one, shared a news article in which Ann Romney is quoted as saying, "I mean really, all this wanting to be equal nonsense is going to be detrimental to the future of women everywhere." This time, my friend quickly realized this was a vicious fabrication (humorless satire isn't satire at all, just a lie). He posted a retraction and removed the original link. But instead of just saying, "I screwed up, please ignore," he said, and I'm paraphrasing here, the fact that so many people believed the article is an indication that it might be true, and in any case we should carefully consider the attitudes and positions of a potential First Lady before choosing her husband as president. In other words, if enough people find something to be plausible, it is likely to be at least partly true.

So it seems, on both sides of the political spectrum, we don't let the facts get in the way of a good story. And we never have. If you are a fan of Atlas Shrugged, Animal Farm, 1984, Lord of the Flies, The Republic, The Holy Bible, or almost any great work of literature, you know that a good story woven around a fictional set of "facts" is just as effective at shaping opinions, if not more so, than any dry set of statements, numbers, and statistics that have only the slightest advantage of being true. People are moved to action by narratives, not facts.

In Conflict, Compromise, and Consensus, I stated, "If one argues for an idea, or fights for it, it should be out of conviction the idea is righteous and true." In response to this, my good friend Dr. Russell Turpin points this out:

Among the most seductive of fallacies are the notions that believing something that is true must be advantageous, and conversely that believing what’s false is detrimental.

Well said. A good story is often more valuable than the truth. And facts are relative to the times and communities in which they are found. Ethics, however, are not -- at least not in my view. It is universally unethical to tell a good story based on facts you know to be false within your community. It is wrong to wield the terrible power of argumentation or war in defense of something you know to be a falsehood, even if it is to your advantage to do so.

Nevertheless, facts are rarely the best way to win an argument or an election. When faced with the necessity to choose between two alternatives in the real world, my favorite modern religious allegory, "The Life of Pi," supplies the answer in its final paragraphs. Which story makes you happiest?