“I'll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination,” writes the narrator of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. It’s story set on a faraway planet named Winter, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the narrator's “homeworld” was planet Earth.
We live in a time and a place where we watch Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert for the news, where we relish the scandal of James Frey making up his memoir but gasp at Kim Kardashian getting divorced after a multi-million-dollar wedding that depicted a perfect couple.
If someone fudges the facts and fesses up, that’s not such a scandal. But if we figure out that we’ve been lied to...hoo boy.
This American Life recently released an episode retracting Mike Daisey’s reportage, on a previous broadcast, of the labor issues in China's Apple factories. The process of discovering the falsehoods in Daisey’s story recalls that of the people who managed to get beneath the veneer of Stephen Glass, the ambitious young journalist at The New Republic who was caught fabricating quotes, sources, and entire stories. In both instances, the recalcitrant writer at the center devolves the quest for truth into a game of he-said-she-said.
And yet, when John D’Agata goes back on himself in About a Mountain andLifespan of a Fact, he doesn’t outrage us. He tells us that he’s lying, so we can forgive him the lie. And when David Sedaris embellishes his family tales, nobody seems quite as infuriated.
The dividing line is unmistakable: one one side, we have the author telling us that he lied; on the other, we find out that he lied. It's the difference between a an amused, engaged reader and a disgruntled one.
Truth is a matter of the imagination. But even animals can lie—so what use is the truth, as we mutually perceive and imagine it?
“The truth” is exactly as useful as the words we speak to communicate with each other. We understand each other because we agree on what the words of our language mean, and how their syntax creates meaning. If the rules changed, we would still be able to talk, so long as we all knew what had changed. But when we choose to disagree on what “really happened,” the disconnect can be traumatizing.
Mike Daisey says, rightly, that “This American Life is essentially a journalistic—not a theatrical—enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations” from his theatrical performance, but his statementcomes far too late. We can’t trust someone who evidently refuses to play by our rules. Humans are a social species, but we can only be social so long as we share—the words of our language, and the manifold, contradictory, and deeply necessary figments of our collective imagination.
image credit: Will Temple via flickr.com/photos/grubbymits/5352592011/