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Notes on Real Life

Adventures in Non-Fiction Storytelling. by Penny Lane

Notes on Truth (Or, Documentary in the Post-Truth Era)

in Columns
on Dec 13, 2016


Since Election Day, many in the documentary community have been asking the question, “What do we do now?” The most common response is, “We need to make great politically-engaged films.” I hope a lot of people do exactly that; I might even do it myself. Okay, I probably won’t. My answer is a lot more basic: we need to love, seek and defend truth.

I’m not fucking around, you guys: the truth might be hard to find sometimes, but it exists, and it is crucially important to the survival of our species. As plainly stated by the great moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt, “Without truth, we either have no opinion at all concerning how things are or our opinion is wrong. One way or the other, we do not know what kind of situation we are in.” The seeking of truth and the related love of knowledge — what Bill Nichols calls epistephilia — is the highest calling of the documentary pursuit.1 We chase it ourselves, and we hope to inspire it in others.

Really: what else is there? Why else “documentary”?

I have always had some vague notion that I make documentaries because I love truth. I love it for the same reason I loved school, and books, and good debates: the pursuit of knowledge is really fucking pleasurable. That always seemed good enough. But today I feel I have to defend truth. Not to defend some specific truth; to defend the very idea of truth.

I would have thought this claim banal or even ridiculous a few weeks ago. But I now feel it as a moral imperative. Because we are about to enter at least four years of life under a President whose most successful political tactic is waging an all-out war on reality.

A week ago, some journalists gathered on the NPR program The Diane Rehm Show to ask, “What do we do now?” The journalists are dazed and grim. The whole show is worth hearing. But I want to focus on just one moment, a moment that should have made me laugh wicked hard but instead sent chills down my spine. This is the moment where Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes, who describes herself as a “classically studied journalist,” joins the conversation in order to assert: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, of [sic] facts.” 2

You could almost hear the jaws drop. After Hughes confirmed a few times to her shocked and disbelieving fellow journalists that, yup, we heard her right, veteran reporter James Fallows issued his conclusion, “[T]he job for the media and civil society now is essentially to say there are such things as facts.”

I thought, “Oh god… he’s right.”

But the realization that the idea of truth needs defending didn’t really occur to me suddenly last week listening to NPR. This is, after all, the year where fake news probably helped to elect a U.S. President. And by now you’ve all heard that the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 is post-truth — defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

But 100 years ago, the United States was getting ready to jump into World War I, a horrifying war which claimed 16 million lives for no discernible reason, during which historian Phillip Knightley has stated “more deliberate lies were told than in any other period of history, [as] the whole apparatus of the state went into action to suppress the truth.” So we know there’s nothing new about fake news. You may also remember that the Word of the Year 10 years ago was truthiness. So there is also nothing new about the idea that appeals to emotion and belief might be more influential than facts.

And yet something tells us there is something different now. I need to think about if that is true, or if I’m just really bummed out about who won the election and am grasping at theories to justify the pit in my stomach.

“[P]eople that say facts are facts – they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way — it’s kind of like looking at ratings or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true.” — Scottie Nell Hughes

Before I attempt to justify my belief that this administration is likely to be unusually post-truth, I need to take a brief detour to discuss the relationship between facts and truth, because I see those two words being jumbled up all the time, and not just by Scottie Nell Hughes.

Facts are things that are observable and provable. Truths are logical propositions that cite facts to describe generally held states of reality.

This is a bit like the distinction I made a few months ago in this column between knowledge and belief: fact, like knowledge, is immovable; truth, like belief, is debatable. But truth is made of a stronger material than belief. It takes at least one fact to construct a truth, but no facts at all to construct a belief. One can have a false belief, but not a false truth.

We need belief in order to make meaning of life. We need truth to live. I’m not being cute; I mean, literally, to live. Truth is a matter of survival. We don’t even need Orwellian references to doublespeak or whatever; in a post-truth world, we might well accept the notion that water is poison. Or we might say, “Well, I’m just not sure about whether water is poison, so maybe it’s best to avoid it.”

Of course that is a silly example. Facts exist, and one of them is that water is necessary for human life. We can read fake news all day long about how water is poison and we — unless we are insane; more on that later — nonetheless must inevitably confront the fact that it is not.

So, duh, Hughes is completely wrong; there is such a thing as facts, and sane people are forced to accept them everyday. Her theory of truth is so fucked up that I can pull any quote from her interview and explain how it would not pass muster as the thesis of an undergraduate essay (no, not even in a film class).

Of course, I hear stuff like this all the time. Artists and academics sometimes say, without any apparent irony, that it is definitely true that truth doesn’t exist. (Just sit with that for a second.) I had come to believe this was a silly tic of a postmodern fringe, forcing me to write the word “truth” in quotation marks to forestall pointless arguments. Annoying, maybe; intellectually vapid, usually; and not a good way to make good art, in my humble opinion. But the stakes always seemed pretty low to me.

What is new is that I’m typing these words about a person who officially speaks for the incoming Presidential administration. The lunatics have taken over the asylum. And the goal is not to convince us to accept some coherent set of ideological beliefs — beliefs over which I have always felt it is necessary and healthy to argue. I believe in the marketplace of ideas. But this is not that. This is a war on reality, waged not by postmodern theorists or fringe conspiracy theorists but by the state — and that really fucking scares me.

This great essay by Ned Resnikoff summarizes well why Trump’s lies are so different from run-of-the-mill politicians’ lies:

President-elect Donald Trump does not create new realities. He tells lies that are seemingly random, frequently inconsistent, and often plainly ridiculous. He says or tweets things on the record and then denies having ever said them. He contradicts documented fact and then disregards anyone who points out the inaccuracies. He even lies when he has no discernible reason to do so – and then turns around and tells another lie that flies in the face of the previous one. If Bush and Rove constructed a fantasy world with a clear internal logic, Trump has built something more like an endless bad dream…. Whereas President Bush offered America the illusion of morality clarity, President-elect Trump offers an ever-shifting phantasmagoria of sense impressions and unreliable information, barely held together by a fog of anxiety and bewilderment.

What Resnikoff is describing is a state of insanity. And despite what you may wish to believe, insanity is not all that hard a state to induce. And large groups are at least as susceptible to it as individuals. Giving up, or losing our grasp of, the ideas of fact and truth is really all it takes.

Unfortunately, from an evolutionary perspective, the question of “how much truth” we need to survive is an interesting one; research suggests we need just enough to literally not die and not much more. So: we can’t believe water isn’t poison, but we could certainly believe Trump won the popular vote. Psychologists and cognitive scientists assert similarly depressing conclusions, from Daniel Kahneman’s notion of “cognitive ease” — the fact that we tend to avoid facts that make us think too hard — to the seemingly infinite other ways our minds fail to prioritize fact and truth in decision making.

I have argued that stories are what allow for civilization to exist: narratives, even totally fictional ones like the ones in the Bible, bind us together and allow us to cooperate on a grand scale. I have argued that it is not our much-vaunted rationality but our deep attachment to story that is our most salient quality as a species. The example I sometimes use (which I borrowed from someone else; I forget who) is that bees cannot decide that their hive society is unjust, overthrow the queen, and establish a democratic republic of bees instead. But humans can. And that is because we use stories to convey otherwise impossibly abstract ideas such as justice, or freedom, or how one should go about living.

I don’t think that’s wrong, but I have been taking for granted the importance that truth plays in our ability to survive and flourish and cooperate as a civilization. Facts allow us to construct a shared reality. We may understand that reality is kind of an illusion, that it exists in some part because we all agree it exists, but to throw it out completely — and again, to be clear, that is what our President-elect does on a daily basis — that is just a fucking death sentence.

So which is it — what is our most salient quality, our stories or our facts? Documentarians don’t need to decide; I would even go so far as to say we know intrinsically it must be both. We know we need stories to cope with pain and justify our beliefs and remind us of how beautifully mysterious it all is — and we also desperately need stories that love, seek and defend truth. We need true stories.

We live in this weird reality TV world where, as noted by Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth professor who studies misperception and bias in politics, “it pays to be outrageous, but not to be truthful.” Nyhan adds that the solution can’t be to put into power some kind of gatekeepers of truth, but must be to “increase the reputational consequences and change the incentives for making false statements.”

I think that’s crucially important and blessedly concrete. Let’s continue to hold one another accountable to these twin concerns of story and fact, truth and beauty. Let’s continue to work hard at understanding the difference between a fiction and a lie. Let’s assert that such things as facts exist and inspire others to share in our ecstatic epistephilia.

Because, really: why else “documentary?”


1. [This mandate does not foreclose all kinds of interesting and vital arts and fictions, says the woman whose last documentary was a mostly-scripted carnival of bullshit. Seeking, loving and defending truth is an ethical standard – it does not mean hewing to any specific standard of nonfiction form]

2. [By singling out this interview with Hughes, I do not mean to ignore the vast quantity of other evidence demonstrating the President-elect’s unusually fucked up relationship to the truth. I could link to so many things right now, but since I’m already thinking about James Fallows, I recommend his Trump Time Capsules series, detailing in 152 installments from May – November 2016 “the things Donald Trump says and does that no real president could, should, or would say or do” [emphasis mine]. Like many things from this past year, every entry is now horrifically charged with dramatic irony.]

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