In the last few hours leading up to April Fools’ Day, you may have noticed several people posting any number of warnings to friends on Facebook and Twitter: “Do not be taken in,” they all said, “by the crazy stories people post.” Were there more of those admonitions this year than in the past? It seemed to me there were.
I value skepticism. I believe it’s in painfully short supply in our credulous country, which all too often sets ridiculous claims about everything from astrology to trickle-down economics to “traditional” marriage on equal footing with evidence-based, scientifically-sound arguments. Our newspapers, social media feeds, and television broadcasts often make it seem like every day is April first in America.
We are hard-wired, evolutionarily, to believe. The mechanisms for belief have evolved in our brains. Some of us are better at it than others; I’m not so good at it myself. The necessary genes either didn’t make it into my DNA or didn’t get activated properly. But it’s second nature for most people.
I believe it’s time for us, in the 21st century, to develop a THIRD nature: a sustained practice of disbelief. In an era of heels-dug-in opinion, we’re in desperate need of a Culture of Doubt and Reflection. And the founding principle of that culture: all stories are lies.
I hope that assertion is fairly obvious when you consider fiction, plays, poetry: nobody expects literature to have any measurable truth value. (As distinct from Truth Value, by which I mean to refer to the ability of literature to create meaning.) But it’s also accurate, I would assert, about non-fiction as well.
What about journalism? I hate to be blunt, but I hope we can all at least admit the possibility that the occasional news story might be partly fabricated. More importantly, though: every article is still the result of a human mind sifting through facts and quotes and storylines and constructing a narrative that represents as much of the truth as possible, but not ALL of it. Something always gets left out. Some perspective goes unrepresented. Those selections turn the news into a series of lies of omission.
Autobiography? We have to distrust what people write about their own lives because memory is woefully inaccurate. Any number of studies have demonstrated how we construct memories rather than recalling them. We do not remember with any fidelity. We lie to ourselves, then we repeat those lies in the telling of personal stories.
May I suggest that your April Fools’ Day skepticism might be worth sustaining throughout the year? Question Everything, as we all used to say in a more rebellious time. It just makes sense.