Fake lies?

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about truth, but not for the reasons you might expect. Not because of the abundance of ‘fake news’ about which we seem to be constantly reminded, and not necessarily because I’ve been occasionally embarrassed in a lie, nor because of the tangled web you wove when first you practiced to deceive.

Fake news and deception, not to mention outright lies, have been in the headlines in recent years, but deception is certainly not unique to our era -nor even our species. Think of bird behaviour to distract predators from their nest, cowbirds that lay their eggs in other nests to trick the foreign mothers into raising the alien young, or squirrels that pretend to bury acorns in one place, but in case they were observed, actually keep them in their mouths while they find another spot to cache them.

I grant almost universality to the practice of intended deception -especially where there is something being protected, if only reputation or status. And, given its ubiquity and seemingly relentless practice in humans, it has a long history of ethical debate. Deception, of course is different from lying -deception is more a case of misleading, whereas lying is saying something known to be false.

I am concerned by something a little different, however. I am vexed by what, at first glance, would seem to be a more trivial concern: does a writer of fiction actually lie? And if the medium is one that does not purport to be factual -a novel, say- is it even possible? How important is truth in a fictive world -as long as it is internally consistent? A character in that story can lie, to be sure, but how analogous is that to a real-life character doing the same thing?

Writers have strange thoughts -perhaps that’s why they end up writing- but nonetheless I have been curious about this for some time now. I wonder about the ethics of fiction -not malicious, or scandalous fiction, you understand (although I suspect even those are merely the far edge of the spectrum). As it applies to writing, the very definition of ‘fiction’ -from the Latin fingere, to contrive- suggests imaginative creation, not investigative reportage where false attributions are indeed ethically problematic.

I’ve written fiction for years now (putting aside the fact that I am not at all widely published) so have I been lying all these years? If one of my characters lies, or deceives, and it happens to be read by someone in the ‘real-world’ -trespassing, in other words- have those lies in some sense transgressed the real-world ethics? Soiled our nest?

You’re right, it is perhaps a trifling concern, and yet bothersome nonetheless; I despaired of ever seeing it as the subject of an understandable evaluation. But, on one of my wide-eyed explorations, I happened upon a thoughtful essay by Emar Maier, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Groningen. https://aeon.co/essays/how-to-tell-fact-from-fiction-in-fiction-and-other-forms-of-lies

He starts by considering the work of another philosopher, H.P. Grice who considers that ‘it all comes down to the assumption that communication is fundamentally a cooperative endeavour,’ and postulates what seem to be almost ‘Golden Rule’ maxims of quality in communication: ‘‘do not say what you believe to be false’ and ‘do not say that for which you have insufficient evidence’.’ And yet, we violate these all the time -we tell jokes, we exaggerate, we deceive, we use metaphors, we use sarcasm, and, of course, we tell stories. ‘In all of these cases there is a clear sense in which we are not really presenting the truth, as we know it, based on the best available evidence. But there are vast differences between these phenomena. For instance, while some constitute morally objectionable behaviour, others are associated with art and poetry.’

There is a difference, though, between violating one of Grice’s norms, and flouting it with, say, a sigh and rolling of the eyes. However untrue the assertion, it is readily recognizable as an exaggeration or even a lie that is not meant to be taken as true. On the other hand, ‘Liars… violate the same maxim, but they don’t flout it. Theirs is a covert violation, and hence lying has an altogether different effect on the interpreter than irony, sarcasm or metaphor.’

Fiction, however, is more complicated. A work of fiction ‘consists of speech acts that, for the most part, look like ordinary assertions.’ And yet, ‘As with lies and irony, there is no dedicated grammar or style for constructing fictional statements that would reliably distinguish them from regular assertions.’

So, ‘Is fiction more like the covert violation of the liar, or like the overt violation of the ironical speaker? Unlike the liar, the fiction author doesn’t hide her untruthful intentions.’ There are two ways to look at this, Maier says: either that ‘both fiction and lying are quality-violating assertions – ie, speech acts presenting something believed to be false as if it’s known truth’ or ‘we can analyse fictional discourse as constituting a different type of speech act, where the usual norms and maxims don’t apply in the first place.’

‘[T]he idea that both lying and fiction are just assertions of known falsehoods can be traced back to eminent philosophers such as Plato, who wanted to ban poets from his ideal society, [and] David Hume who called them ‘liars by profession’’.

I, however, am more convinced by the opinion of Albert Camus, who believed that ‘fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth’. At any rate, Maier goes on to observe that a ‘striking difference between fictional statements and lies is the fact that, while most lies are simply false… many philosophers have argued that the statements making up a work of fiction, even those involving clearly nonexistent entities, are not really false, but at least ‘in some sense’ true – viz… true relative to the fictional world in question.’ Now we’re getting somewhere -it’s context that matters.

A second difference between fiction and lies, is the emotional response -the paradox of- fiction. ‘[W]orks of fiction induce… a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’, allowing us to be emotionally engaged with commonly known falsehoods. Lies evidently lack this property: once a lie is exposed, suspension of disbelief and emotional engagement in accordance with the story’s content become impossible… the difference between fictional statements and regular communicative assertions lies not in some hidden logical operators in the fictional assertion, but in the fact that telling fictional stories is an altogether different speech act from the act of assertion that makes up our talk about the weather, or our newspaper reporting.’ Kind of what I suspected all along. ‘As the English poet and soldier Sir Philip Sidney put it in The Defence of Poesy (1595): ‘Now for the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth.’

So, ‘it seems that fiction and lying are mutually exclusive, for they belong to distinct speech act categories, conform to different norms, and affect different cognitive states… since it is the text itself that generates the fictional world, the statements that make up that text should automatically become true in that world. When George Orwell wrote that ‘the clocks were striking thirteen’, it thereby became true in the fictional world of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) that the clocks were striking thirteen. Unlike for the historian or the journalist, there is no relevant world outside the text, relative to which we could fact-check whether Orwell miscounted. This line of argument can be summed up in the principle of authorial authority: the statements that make up a work of fiction are true in that fiction.’

Of course there are things like ‘imaginative resistance’ where internal inconsistencies disrupt belief, but writers -and certainly proof readers and editors- are pretty good at resolving these gaffes before they are hung out to air on the clothesline of publication.

At any rate, I’m not sure I’ve discovered many immutable truths in Maier’s treatment of fictive lying, but I feel better about my own ethics of make-believe. I do still wonder about the boundary markers at that razor-thin edge where well-written fiction seems real and induces real emotion. I suppose edges are usually like that, though: porous…

We will build a wall…

It’s humbling to realize that, despite my age, there are still some things I’ve never heard of. Or, is it because of my age…?

I suppose I could be forgiven for being unaware –I almost said uninterested– in things that trend nowadays, the inference being that, lacking in statistical significance, those things which appeal to a segment of the population to which I am not credentialed have been assigned a new category. But what about issues that have been bubbling about for almost a century, albeit far enough away that I am seldom directly affected? And yet, distance excuses nothing. I hear of hurricanes, and distant floods. I am all too aware of the melting of Greenland’s glaciers, not to mention similar changes in Antarctica, so why would Africa be any different? News of terrorism, political coups, and natural disasters there abound in everyday news, so how could anything as filled with potential as a decades long project to arrest the steady creep of desertification into sub-Saharan Africa have crept past me?

The Sahara is the second largest desert in the world, after Antarctica and throughout the history of the region, it has undergone millennial climatic oscillations. From about 11,000 to 5,000 years ago (during the early Holocene epoch), trees, lakes, grasslands once covered the arid Sahara. ‘The Green Sahara was the most recent of a succession of wet phases paced by orbital precession that extends back to the late Miocene. When the precessional cycle approaches perihelion during boreal summer, the increase in insolation drives a strong land-sea temperature gradient over North Africa that strengthens the African monsoon, bringing rainfall deep into the Sahara,’ according to a paper authored by geologist Jessica Tierney of the University of Arizona and published in Science Advances http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/1/e1601503.full

The last few millennia, however, have been dominated by aridity and a fear that the desert is slowly creeping southward. And while, apart from the Nile arriving from much further south, little was felt to be able to reclaim the desert itself. So, the idea of preventing further encroachment along its southern borders –the Sahel- was proposed.

As the Smithsonian Magazine reports, ‘The Sahel spans 3,360 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean, a belt stretching across the southern edge of the Sahara. Rainfall is low, from four to 24 inches per year, and droughts are frequent. Climate change means greater extremes of rainfall as the population skyrockets in the region, one of the poorest in the world. Food security is an urgent concern. By 2050, the population could leap to 340 million, up from 30 million in 1950 and 135 million today.

‘In 1952 the English forester Richard St. Barbe Baker suggested that a ”green front” in the form of a 50km wide barrier of trees be erected to contain the spreading desert. Droughts in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel from the 1970s onwards gave wings to the idea, and in 2007 the African Union approved the Great Green Wall Initiative.’ https://qz.com/1014396/the-plan-for-a-great-green-wall-to-beat-back-the-sahara-needs-a-rethink/

The idea was that a green ‘wall’ from from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east would not only halt further desertification, but the people in this area would benefit with jobs, increased arability of the land, and maybe even tourists.

As it was originally conceived, however, it seems retrospectively naïve. Perhaps the Smithsonian magazine summarizes it best: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/great-green-wall-stop-desertification-not-so-much-180960171/ ‘”If all the trees that had been planted in the Sahara since the early 1980s had survived, it would look like Amazonia,” adds Chris Reij, a sustainable land management specialist and senior fellow at the World Resources Institute who has been working in Africa since 1978. “Essentially 80 percent or more of planted trees have died.” Reij, Garrity and other scientists working on the ground knew […] that farmers in Niger and Burkina Faso, in particular, had discovered a cheap, effective way to regreen the Sahel. They did so by using simple water harvesting techniques and protecting trees that emerged naturally on their farms. Slowly, the idea of a Great Green Wall has changed into a program centered around indigenous land use techniques, not planting a forest on the edge of a desert.

‘The African Union and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization now refer to it as “Africa’s flagship initiative to combat land degradation, desertification and drought.” Incredibly, the Great Green Wall—or some form of it—appears to be working. “We moved the vision of the Great Green Wall from one that was impractical to one that was practical,” says Mohamed Bakaar, the lead environmental specialist for Global Environmental Facility the organization that examines the environmental benefit of World Bank projects. “It is not necessarily a physical wall, but rather a mosaic of land use practices that ultimately will meet the expectations of a wall. It has been transformed into a metaphorical thing.”’

I like metaphors, especially wall metaphors… Edge metaphors in particular. There is something intriguing about what happens at boundaries when things alien to each other, let alone inimical, meet. There is usually a testing of one another, a probing for similarities, weaknesses, and then often as not, attempts at breach. And if both sides absorb the assaults, the wall then becomes a compromise –not maintaining a separate identity, but melding, as it were, into a new entity. A new creature.

So, although it may be true that what lies far away on either side stays true to itself, the wall is a relationship -a neither-nor that exists as a bridge to each. Walls, are like skin: it separates us from the world beyond, but it also joins us to it. The Green ‘Wall’, in a way, highlights this. Rather than artificially planting trees, the farmers allowed the tree roots still in the ground to regenerate –these, presumably, were already adapted to the local conditions. ‘Tony Rinaudo, an Australian with Serving in Mission, a religious nonprofit, working with local farmers, had helped the farmers identify useful species of trees in the stumps in their fields, protect them, and then prune them to promote growth. Farmers grew other crops around the trees.’
For example, ‘One tree, Faidherbia albida, goes dormant during the wet season when most trees grow. When the rains begin, the trees defoliate, dropping leaves that fertilize the soil. Because they have dropped their leaves, the trees do not shade crops during the growing season. Their value had long been recognized by farmers […] but they were never encouraged to use them.’

So, far from being a wall, the Sahel is more of a chain, with different parts linked together, however tentatively. However unlikely.

You have been told that, even like a chain, you are as weak as your weakest link.
This is but half the truth.
You are also as strong as your strongest link.
To measure you by your smallest deed is to reckon the power of the ocean
by the frailty of its foam. Kahlil Gibran…

Metaphors are powerful things.