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Lies, Damn Lies, and Stories

March 22, 2012

In 1987, a compelling story erupted in New York State’s southern tier when a teenage girl named Tawana Brawley said that she was raped and brutalized by six white men, including a Dutchess County Assistant District Attorney named Steven Pagones. Given the country’s rich history of mistreatment of many minorities, most people were aghast at the revelations. The story felt true, and people across the racial spectrum were moved to defend this teenage girl so savagely attacked.

Except it never happened.

Richard Jewell

Almost a decade later, a security guard named Richard Jewell turned from hero to horror when he became a suspect in the 1996 Centennial Park bombing during the Atlanta Olympics. With Oklahoma City a recent memory and Munich casting its long shadow, once again, people were aghast and wanted to find someone responsible. The story spun by the media said Jewell may have planted the bomb so he could overcome a failed law-enforcement career by saving people.

The bomber was Eric Rudolph.

Both of those stories came to mind when I read Nathan Bransford’s blog post about false or misleading stories and the harm they can cause.

We have first-hand accounts delivered as soon as they can be uploaded. When these stories have gauzy (and often fake) authenticity of amateurism and the weight of mass approval behind them (look how many times this video has been watched!) it’s easy to be swept along for the ride.

If you doubted the power of our ability to craft stories, you can look to the wonderful powerful stories that uplift us. Or you can look to the horror stories of lies that were crafted so well that everyone believed them–for a while. As storytellers, our stories need not be factual, but they should always be true–even if they are fiction.

And as story consumers, we may need to be more skeptical. Mike Daisey’s This American Life, the supposedly true story of Apple’s oppression of Chinese workers may feel true because they’d hardly be the first. A good lie contains enough truth to be credible. The best lies contain enough truth to feel true, even if they aren’t. Against, Bransford hits the nail on the head.

[Stories can] prey on idealism and human compassion, emotions that are best stirred through storytelling. Facts are complex; reality is messy. Storytelling strips the elements that don’t fit the narrative and reduces life into something more comprehensible and stirring.

Meanwhile, as the Internet gives us more power than ever to pick the stories that fit our version of what’s comprehensible and stirring, the power of a story that’s mostly true but completely false can only grow.

Bransford points to Daisey’s work as an example of “falsehoods serving a greater truth.” When that greater truth is part of our core belief system, it’s sorely tempting to dismiss it as a lie, but a lie for a good cause. It’s human nature. “Hey, that instance might not be factual, but the overriding point is true.”

I KNEW it!

Suppose tomorrow, we found out that Joe McCarthy was right, or that Curt Schilling squirted ketchup on his sock, or that Whitney Houston lip-synced that stirring rendition of the National Anthem at Super Bowl XXV. Would it really change what we believe?

Probably not. (And Whitney Houston did lip-sync that National Anthem.)

And the Beatles didn’t sing that song.

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3 Comments
  1. March 22, 2012 10:54 am

    What if global warming is a scam to redistribute the wealth? G

    Currently global warming is taught in our scools to be a fact, rather than a political opinion. No argument on the matter is tolerated.

    I am more worried about global cooling.

  2. Chris Hamilton permalink
    March 22, 2012 11:31 am

    Ahhh, in a different context we could have a big honken discussion about that. But we just had the carpets redone here at the blog and that could lead to a nasty food fight and our carpet-replacement budget is shot for the year.

    I would say that questions about truth and fact and lies our current instant-information society are fodder for many compelling stories right now.

  3. March 22, 2012 3:31 pm

    I write politically incorrect fiction, so I am prone to spill a lot of food on the carpet. It’s a niche market.

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