I’m mulling over two clusters of information that have passed through my eyes and ears this week. One is a radio program; the other is a college sociology paper.
Both touch on a dilemma that has confronted humans, particularly writers, for centuries but seems to have intensified in the last century: the way in which truth and fact can sometimes diverge.
I was first presented with this dilemma formally when I was in journalism school. One of the most important goals of student journalists is the pursuit of objectivity. They are taught to gather the facts of a story and to relate them as accurately as possible. (The “gross factual error” is the bane of every journalism class and every newsroom.) Above all, they are taught that the journalist’s personal opinions and biases have no place in a news story.
Of course, even my journalism professors had lived in the human world long enough to admit that there is no such thing as absolute objectivity.
Relativity theory had proved that different people (or at any rate different worlds) can experience time and space, previously seen as absolute, in radically different ways. Quantum theory had proved that at the most basic level our universe is a matter of probability rather than fact—and that the act of observation can change, even define, the object being observed.
Nevertheless, we journalism students were taught to pursue objectivity as a goal and a standard, to get as close to it as we could.
Last week this priority was reiterated for journalists and consumers of journalism when the public-radio program This American Life spent an hour retracting one of its most popular episodes, “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory.”
In January monologist Mike Daisey had appeared on the program with an excerpt from his popular one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. In this story Daisey talked about his experiences interviewing to Apple-computer workers in China. He discussed maimed workers, child laborers, and unsafe conditions.
In the retraction This American Life staff members revealed that further fact checking had exposed much of the information Daisey had shared as either second hand or untrue. Daisey was interviewed on the air and came across as half apologetic and half defensive.
Speaking of his stage production about Apple, Daisey told host Ira Glass, “I don’t know that I would say in a theatrical context that it isn’t true. I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context in the theater that when people hear the story in those terms that we have different languages for what the truth means.”
I believe that Daisey was wrong here. Theatrical truth is different from factual truth only when the theater piece involved is qualified in some way—that is, when it is presented as fiction, or when it is “inspired by a true story” but doesn’t purport to tell that true story.
In his stage performance and in his This American Life appearance he stated that he witnessed Apple’s appalling factory conditions himself. He didn’t witness them–not all of them. He shouldn’t have said that he did.
And yet …. I know what he meant about truth.
To further muddy the waters for me, a couple of days ago a childhood friend who now teaches sociology at the University of Georgia sent me a paper one of her students had written about food blogs and bloggers. My food blog was one of the student’s references.
The student wrote about the “social construction of memory” involved in food blogging and quoted another reference in describing the virtual world of food blogging as a “me-centered network.”
According to this paper, when I write my food blog (and, by extension, this blog) I am constructing and re-constructing my past and present, placing my own ego front and center.
This doesn’t sound entirely flattering. To some extent it is an accurate characterization of what I do when I write, however, although I should add that for me this style of writing long predated my blogs. It has characterized much of my feature journalism and definitely characterizes my Pudding Hollow Cookbook.
It is also to some extent an accurate characterization of what most of us do when we tell stories about our lives.
My doctoral dissertation focused on three celebrity couples from the 1950s, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and Ozzie Nelson and Harriet Hilliard Nelson.
One of my main discoveries about the couples was that in the final analysis their lives didn’t exist as some kind of objective truth outside their television programs and their interviews to the press. Their lives shaped and reacted to those programs and those interviews.
On a personal level we’re all familiar with the ways in which stories we tell about ourselves and our families change and develop. Over time they become less and less about a moment in the past and more and more about family legend.
I spent last year writing a blog about my mother’s final illness. I tried hard not to lie about the way either of us reacted to things. Nevertheless, I also tried to stress our moments of strength and happiness.
Somehow or other by stressing those moments I made them longer and more frequent. Little by little, in life as in the blog, they managed to completely outshine the moments in which we were weak and unhappy.
In the end saying that my mother and I were strong and happy became the absolute truth.
Unlike Mike Daisey, I won’t tell readers I did something or heard something when I didn’t. Nevertheless, like him and like my old friend’s student I do believe that when I write I am to some extent constructing myself, my world, and the truth.
All I can do is promise to keep the facts as straight as I can—and never to lose my awareness of the oddly elastic cord that binds them to the truth.
P.S. As au audio illustration for this post, my friend Paul suggested I include this clip of the wonderful Jerry Orbach singing “Promises, Promises”……….