Nonfic: Unreliable narrators: When we talk, we say things

blog_snowconfusionWe make sounds that correspond to certain patterns we recognize as words and then we might be able to interpret from these words a meaning, and so we communicate. (Same goes for writing, only we go from visuals to meanings.)  But these meanings don’t necessarily have any connection to, well, anything, including reality. I find it useful (and I find usefulness a better standard for evaluating a statement than truth) to consider statements not as true or false, but simply the product of the statement-maker’s mind at the time the statement was made. As such, the statements characterize the statement-maker, but the statements themselves can be held by audience members without being evaluated; this way the audience member keeps an open mind and does not mistakenly privilege a statement as a “true” statement.

I’ve been thinking about this since Thursday when I was in a coffeeshop and two neighboring couples started making statements — assertions about and characterizations of and predictions for  reality. At the time I overheard (and recorded — there’s something wonderful about turning real life speech into symbols on paper) some of their statements, I understood these statements as political, in that they were discussing government policies, programs, and operations.

But today I’m thinking of their conversations as a philosophical one. These people were making assertions about reality (“The culture’s headed to where we want to take care of everybody…”). They were also characterizing — making metaphors and similes, drawing analogies, comparing — real things (“She’d dress like a street person” and “That’s what happened in Germany”), and they were also making predictions based on their assertions and characterizations (“They could shut the government down and you wouldn’t even know it”).

The content of their conversation may have been philosophical — metaphysical (pertaining to ultimate truth/reality), in particular — but the conduct of the conversation was not what I’d call philosophical, in that there was very little disagreement among them, and very few arguments were made to support assertions. Perhaps these people shared many premises and values so that they could deliver their assertions in brief. This also means, of course, that nobody was really learning much from each other; there was a “preaching to the choir” aspect there.

As a teacher, or as a philosopher, or as a busybody (or all three), I felt tempted to interrupt their discussion to challenge their assertions (as not being based on even so much evidence as poll results), their characterizations (which metaphors, analogies, and comparisons are not really statements that can be judged true or false, since these things are, by definition, not literally true. However, the comparisons seemed to be supporting their assertions by means of negative connotation.), and their predictions (as being pure bullsh!t, since, as Wendell Berry pointed out in “The Unsettling of America”, the future does not exist).

I did not jump in, which interruption likely would not have been welcomed and which would have likely upset the calm of the social situation. Everyone is entitled to one’s own beliefs, of course. But if we are not at least willing to entertain some philosophical skepticism about our own beliefs and assertions about reality, we risk becoming “unreliable narrators” of our own lives, people whose statements are always asterisked, in the sense of: “Well, Matt* complained about the party — (*but you know how he tends to be).”

I don’t want my statements to be predictable, and I don’t want my statements to be qualified with an asterisk. (I originally used the plural “we” in that sentence, but I ought to speak only for myself. How can I possibly speak authentically for others?) Yet, a way to avoiding being predictably biased seems to be to consider all statements I hear and read, as well as all statements I make, to be already-asterisked (with a different asterisk, one that indicates the statement is merely a statement, truth value unknown), and to not judge any statement as true or false too quickly.

Post Script: This post was partly inspired by A.M.B.’s post about reality in fiction. While I agree that statements in fiction works ought not to be taken as true, I’d also suggest that this skepticism be applied to nonfiction works, too. While a writer shouldn’t knowingly lie in any work labeled “nonfiction,” the writer’s statements aren’t really true, either. After all, we construct the stories we tell, whether they’re fiction or nonfiction; it’s not like we can go around picking stories we find lying around. Nonfiction assertions about “what really happened” are the products of a mind describing experience, which experience doesn’t really happen in words, anyway. Just as storytellers tend to naturally, unconsciously, compress time in their narratives and relate the events in sequence, so do storytellers label particular sensory experiences (like hearing a particular sound) with generally known terms (“a bell tolled”). Research suggests this storytelling may happen even at the subconscious level, as our brains coordinate sensory inputs in ways that make the world knowable to us.

So, it may be unsettling to live in a world of (mild) skepticism toward assertions about reality, but it can perhaps keep us from falling into believing wrong ideas, having a limited concept of reality. This skepticism reminds me of the epistemologically beautiful thing about science: any scientific idea must be liable to be revised or replaced — or else science isn’t science!

4 responses to “Nonfic: Unreliable narrators: When we talk, we say things

  1. Great post! This discussion reminds me of my high school history textbook, which strung together facts into a biased nationalistic story. It wasn’t entirely false, but it had a particular viewpoint that interpreted facts differently from how I would interpret them.

    • Yes — and I wish we wouldn’t even have history textbooks, as to an extent, I think they all do this. I think it’d be interesting to teach a history class just from primary documents (including participants’ accounts, journals, newspapers, etc) and just let the students write their own histories.

  2. A side thought that was jogged in reading this post (especially by the coffee shop dialogues): how much of verbal dialogue really isn’t about the literal meaning. This is a given in make believe and performance, where subtext is considered essential, but in non-fiction, we tend much more to cling to surface value of the communication. As I get older, I become increasingly aware of the amount of dialogue, both mine and from others, that is ego-driven (proving self worth, writing/rewriting a personal narrative, position self in group, etc)…

  3. I’m glad you made this point about their speech being used to a social purpose — I suspect that’s what these people were doing, as they were just agreeing with each other. And as I think about your point, I suppose that much of my speech, too, is out of my mouth before I become consciously aware of what words I’ve said. But maybe that’s partly why I find it interesting to sit in a public place and record what I hear — words chosen not because of their meanings?

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