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…

Presume Not that I am the Thing I Was.

We are all stories, aren’t we? But as I slip further down the years, I wonder about my story. Some of it I suppose I don’t remember, and yet what I do might still be suspect –a revision I make even as I think about it. Memory doesn’t reproduce the past so much as create it. And therein lies the problem. There was a time when historical validity was only accredited to its witnesses –a first-hand account told by someone who was actually there, someone who experienced it. But we’re long past that now…

When we are dead, we become fictions; when we can no longer speak for ourselves, what we might have thought, what we might have been, is merely interpreted, as the historical fiction writer Hilary Mantel has said. And even modern historians, scrutinizing the same evidence, will often differ in their explanations of the past. Who is to choose among them –and why?

So, history isn’t fixed, as we often assume, and it certainly isn’t static –it changes with new evidence, or transmogrifies according to the prevailing Weltanschauung. As Mantel sees it, history is not the past –it’s a method we’ve evolved to organize our ignorance of it. It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it.

I think that what occasioned this reminiscence was a short feature in the BBC news about a fifteen-year old toilet sign found in Italy at a farmhouse B&B: http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-40936110. The sign was attempting to use emojis to indicate that the toilet was not restricted to any particular sexual orientation. It had three symbols –one of a man, one of a woman, and one of a gay person. Unfortunately, the latter is depicted as a rather flouncy individual who is clearly neither male nor female, but rather an amalgam of them both, I suppose. Why it was felt necessary to suggest that ‘gay’ belonged to neither group is unknown. At any rate, the LGBTQ community reasonably complained of the sign’s confusion of sexual orientation with gender identity and the (new) owners obligingly removed it, even though it had apparently been covered up when they bought the property, and had remained so. They had meant no offence.

Things change. Sensitivities change. And signs are expected to reflect that… I, too, am caught up in the current ethos and find the sign unfeeling, and ill-informed, but things were different then, I think. The world was a different place for sure; the Umwelt itself was less evolved. But nonetheless, it makes me wonder whether we can ever understand the lived-world of another era. Whether even I can ever understand my own historical self, and so continually amend what I can remember of him –and continually rewrite the story…

I was waiting for a bus on the outskirts of town the other day, and sought the tiny shade afforded by a small wooden bench. Two older ladies arrived and seemed more in need of shade and rest than me, so I offered them the only gift I had –the bench. But it was in a covered structure and under a tree, so I stayed nearby in its cooling shadow.

They were both in their eighties, I would think, and both wore loose floral-print cotton dresses like I think my mother would have favoured. They wore their hair like her, too –short and manageable under almost identical blue hats. In fact, the more I looked, the more like her they seemed –they could all have been sisters, although my mother was an only child and died many years ago. It’s strange how often older women seem similar. Men do too, I suppose, but I notice the women more. Age homogenizes their faces, and memory standardizes their appearance… Blends them together into vague familiarity like apples in a crate. Fish in a tank.

I contented myself with leaning against the tree and staring idly down the street lost in thought… Okay, I was listening to them; I can’t resist an argument and they’d been going at it even before they sat down –some sort of family thing.

“You have to admit that father was ahead of his time, though, Thea…” The only difference between them I could detect was the colour of the flower pattern on their dresses. It was the red flower who was talking.

Thea, the blue-flower, sighed loudly. “What on earth makes you say that, Flo?”

Flo promptly crossed her arms and glared at her sister. It was hard to tell from where I leaned, but I think she rolled her eyes because it pulled her lip upwards and something rattled in her mouth. “Remember? He encouraged her to work outside the home, and told everybody about how women should have the same rights as men. Nobody thought like that in those days.”

“What house did you grow up in, Flo? He wouldn’t even let me work in that restaurant, remember?”

Flo shrugged at the memory. “You were too young, Thea. He was protecting you…”

“Then why didn’t he protect Ronny? He had a paper route when he was even younger.” Thea seemed pout for a moment. “And anyway, he didn’t encourage mom to work until he lost his job that time. And even then, she had to clean the house and cook the dinners for us when she got home.”  She stared at Flo. “That’s not equal rights and it’s certainly not ahead of the times…”

Flo stared at her sister with a slight tilt to her head. “Well, how about when Ronny came out? Father welcomed him back into our house…” I could sense that Flo was a bit hesitant to speak about her brother, though.

Thea sighed loudly again, but this time contemptuously. “Only after five years, Flo! And even then, it was because mom kept phoning Ronny and inviting him over. Father had nothing to do with it! And remember, the only reason Ronny agreed to come was because it was a family dinner –their anniversary- and yet, Father wouldn’t even speak to him at first. He totally ignored him at the table.” She shook her head sadly and looked at her sister. “Ronny was so hurt. Remember he even left the table and went to sit in the living room until mom convinced him to come back? And then, years later, Father had the gall to tell everybody that he’d never harboured any grudges against homosexuals? That he’d always accepted them?”

“Father’s last boss was a homosexual, wasn’t he?”

Thea glanced my way and her eyes strayed onto my face for a second, as if fleeing from her sister’s naïveté. “Father always pretended to move with the current, Flo. But deep down, he was a man of his time. That was the way things were when he was growing up. There’s no sense in applying today’s values to another era. It took slow and painful steps to get here…” She touched her sister gently on the shoulder. “It’d be like blaming the doctors in his day for not having discovered penicillin.”

Flo looked down the street and saw the bus approaching. “You certainly remember a different Father from me, Thea…”

Thea shrugged as she fished around in her purse for the fare. “We’ve always seen the world through our own eyes, Flo. It’s a puzzle, eh?” she added as they both boarded a bus that was not mine.

I moved to the bench, now in deeper shade, and thought about what Thea had said about their differences being a puzzle.  I remembered fragments of a thought Alan Watts, had written back in the sixties. It was something about there being a difference between puzzles and mysteries: puzzles are meant to be solved, but mysteries are meant to be enjoyed. Wondered about. Tasted. I think I’d prefer to think of the past as a mystery, you know. That we each taste the world with different eyes; there’s no one history that satisfies us all… And therein lies the wonder.