I’ve always loved teaching. I have a chance these days as a substitute working at all grade levels for several local school districts. Yesterday I taught language arts for first-grade class studying story structure. We reviewed material about the text features including Headings, Diagrams, Labels, Sub-heading, Bold Text, Illustration, Captions and Italic text.
These elements of a document are familiar to everyone consuming content on the Internet. That’s where the vast majority of people now gather information these days.
While the elements of a document or article are important to recognize, it is just as important to understand the components of a story in order to grasp its full significance. These include Characters, Setting, Plot, Conflict, and Resolution.
Finally, it is particularly valuable to understand what type of material you are reading. Is it a news story or commentary? Hard news or Opinion? But most of all, is it fiction or non-fiction?
Sometimes it is difficult to determine whether certain types of information are fictional or not. The word “fiction” means something invented by the imagination or feigned, also known as “fake.” That is the term often used by politicians who don’t want you to believe the truth behind information they don’t like.
The challenging aspect of sorting truth from fiction is that some of the world’s greatest truths are found in fictional works. Often the reason a work of fiction is considered great is its compelling relationship to realities of many kinds.
Some of the most compelling forms of fiction willingly blur the lines between fact and fiction. American author Carlos Castaneda wrote a series of books about shamanism that lure readers into a world where the “crack between the worlds” is opened and revealed. As described on Wikepedia, “The books, narrated in the first person, relate his experiences under the tutelage of a man that Castaneda claimed was a Yaqui “Man of Knowledge” named don Juan Matus. His 12 books have sold more than 28 million copies in 17 languages. They have been found to be fiction, but supporters claim the books are either true or at least valuable works of philosophy.”
That last sentence describes the power and influence of a charismatic personality or a compelling story. Being pulled into that sphere can make a person feel as if a great truth is being revealed. With that degree of revelation at hand, it is difficult to convince people that their seeming grasp on the truth is, fortunately or unfortunately, a work of fiction. This is particularly true when people feel as if they’ve been gifted with a particular brand of truth, especially that which contradicts the status quo or appears to give them insight on an important conspiracy or key to some sort of power.
Such is the case with conspiracy theories in the modern era. From the nightly talking points pumped out by Fox News to the QAnon crowd looking for clues to the overthrow government officials they suspect of sex-trafficking and cannibalism, the lines between fact and fiction are not just blurred, they are willingly and ardently confused and conflated.
The practice of blurring fact and fiction is not uncommon in history of many kinds. The Christian religion is quite adept at creating narratives that serve its purposes yet aren’t supported by fact. From the persecution of Copernicus and Galileo to the invention of purgatory to drive the collection of indulgences and line the pockets of the church, Christianity has long smeared the lines between fact and fiction. That holds true from the creationist take on Genesis to End Times theorists predicting the end of the world based on the Book of Revelations and other texts.
Owning the narrative is the purpose of blurring fact and fiction. If your claim to truth is based solely on a singular interpretation of a story about which you claim to hold the absolute key, then it is hard for anyone to challenge that authority. Such claims to absolute truth are typically based on a tautology, “a statement that is true by necessity or by virtue of its logical form.” Otherwise known as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Fact and fiction
If we sit down with a class of first-graders that have been taught the difference between fact and fiction, as I recently did, I believe it is unlikely those kids will be fooled by the tactics of purposeful lies common to the adult world. It’s not that they think they own greater insights about absolute truth than adults. They just aren’t schooled in the art of self-deception and are not so eager to see conspiracy where none exists. They can tell the difference between fact and fiction because they aren’t interested in blurring the lines for purposes of self-confirmation and self-interest.
It’s quite obvious that a class full of first-graders knows more about truth than an entire nation of Trump supporters and the Republican Senate who refused to hold their “teacher” responsible for the long list of lies he’s been telling since he was born. That faction prefers the fiction that grants them power, and couldn’t care less if future generations have to suffer for it or not.