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by Ben Steele edited by O Society Jan 25, 2020
“A year after this very popular novel came out, I read an article summarizing a study about this novel conducted by scholars at a well-known university. The study documents how the vast majority of people who buy and read this popular book believe it is not a novel, but rather an absolutely true story.
Though the book is marketed as a work of fiction, and nowhere on or in the book does the publisher or author claim the story is true. The study further reports when people who love this book are informed the story is not true, they react with either tremendous anger or enormous disappointment, or both.”
^ This ^ is Todd Walton discussing an interesting phenomenon, from Know Your Audience. And it is something he personally experiences with his own fiction writing:
“I became aware of this phenomenon—people believing fiction is true—some years before this mass delusion about a popular novel swept the nation. In those long ago days, I frequently gave public readings of my fiction; and during the mid-1980s more and more people began to experience my stories as true rather than as fiction. In response to this phenomenon, I prefaced my reading of each story by declaring the tale is not autobiographical, not inspired by supposedly true events, and is most definitely a work of fiction.
Even with this disclaimer, many people in my audiences continued to assume my stories are recollections of things that really happened to me, regardless of how preposterous the possibility.”
People are adamant about believing his fiction is real. People also get quite upset when he tells them once again it is fiction, even though he already explains this to them before the reading. Some of them accuse the author of lying to them. And a few even leave the room in protest.
From a slightly different perspective, here is an anecdote shared by Harlan Ellison:
He told me– and he said this happened all the time, not just in isolated cases– he was approached by a little old woman during one of his personal appearances at a rodeo, and the woman said to him, dead seriously,
“Now listen to me, Hoss: when you go home tonight, I want you to tell your daddy, Ben, to get rid of that Chinee fella who cooks for you all. What you need is to get yourself a good woman in there who can cook up some decent food for you and your family.”
So Dan said to her, very politely (because he was one of the most courteous people I’ve ever met), “Excuse me, ma’am, but my name is Dan Blocker. Hoss is just the character I play on TV. When I go home I’ll be going to my house in Los Angeles, and my wife and children will be waiting.”
And she went right on, just a bit affronted because she knew all this, what was the matter with him, did he think she was simple or something, “Yes, I know… but when you go back to the Ponderosa, you just tell your daddy Ben I said…”
For her, fantasy and reality are one and the same.
Here’s a similarly strange phenomenon. It explains how people are able to both know and not know something simultaneously (a sub-category of cognitive blindness; related to inattentional blindness, contextual ignorance, hypocognition, and conceptual blindness). With this in mind, maybe some of the people in Walton’s various audiences do know it is fiction, even while another part of them mistakes it as real.
This kind of dissociation is probably more common than we first suspect. The sometimes antagonsitic responses he gets could be more than mere anger at having a perception denied. He goes beyond this in challenging their dissociation, which cuts even deeper into the human psyche. People hold onto their dissociations more powerfully than maybe anything else. Maybe…
There is another factor as well. We live in a literal-minded age. Truth becomes conflated with literalism. When something feels true, many people automatically take it as literal. This is the power of religion and its stories, along with politics and its rhetoric.
Yet some argue literal-mindedness increased over time, starting with the Axial Age to become a real force to be reckoned with in our post-Enlightenment age of scientism and fundamentalism. Is this what leads to the black-and-white thinking of something either being literally true or absolutely false (a blatant lie, a frivolous fantasy, etc)?
This mindset isn’t just a source of amusing anecdotes. It has real world consequences. The most powerful stories aren’t told by fiction writers or at least not by those openly identifying as such. Rather, the greatest compelling storytellers of our age work in news media and politics. The gatekeepers have immense influence to determine what is real or not real in the public mind. This is why there is a battle right now over fake news. It’s a battle among the gatekeepers.
This connects to the smart idiot effect, which requires one to be well-educated in order to fall into the trap of the smart idiot effect (hence, the name). This is the reason media personalities and politicians can be so dangerous, as they are people who talk a bit about everything, while often being an expert in nothing, or at best, their expertise is narrowly constrained to a specific topic. Such as acting.
Needless to say, this ground is fertile for storytelling…And this is why attention-grabbing politicians like Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump first became famous as media personalities; they are experts only in entertainment and egotism. Those like Reagan and Trump are storytellers who embody the stories they tell. They pretend to be something they are not and their audience-supporters take the pretense for reality.
This is seen in many areas of society but particularly in right-wing media.
Interestingly, according to research, it is most clearly evidenced among the most well informed audience members of right-wing media who simultaneously are the most misinformed. The average Fox News viewer does know more factoids than the average American (maybe no great accomplishment), but they also know more falsehoods than the average American.
What these Fox News viewers don’t know very well is how to differentiate between what is true and not true. To be able to make this differentiation would require they not only be able to memorize factoids but to understand the larger context of knowledge and the deeper understanding of truth — the subltety and nuance according to Iain McGilchrist.
Otherwise, factoids are simply fodder to be used as repetitive talking points. And it leads to much confusion, such as a surprising percentage of conservatives who take seriously Stephen Colbert’s caricature of conservatism. Isn’t it interesting, many conservatives can’t tell the difference between supposedly authentic conservatism and a caricature of it? The election of Donald Trump, an apolitical demagogue posing as a conservative, emphasizes this point dramatically.
It may be no accident this phenomenon manifests the strongest on the political right, at least in the United States. It could be caused by how, in the US, authoritarianism is correlated to the political right — not so in former Soviet countries, though.
So the main causal factor is probably authoritarianism in general. Yes, authoritarianism does exist within the Democratic Party, if not to the same extreme seen within the Republican Party; note, even though Democratic leaders are to the left of the far right, their policies remain in most ways well to the right of the majority of Americans, as observed over decades of diverse public polling.
Research shows authoritarians don’t mind being hypocritical, assuming these folks even comprehend what hypocrisy means. Authoritarians are good at groupthink and believing what they are told. They are literal-minded. For them, the group’s ideology and the leader’s words are identical to reality itself. Literally. One could interpret authoritarianism as an extreme variety of dissociation.
It wouldn’t be surprising if Todd Walton’s most offended audience members test higher on the authoritarian scale. Such people have a strong desire to believe in something absolutely. Self-aware use of imagination and the imaginal is not an area of talent for such folks, nor is the trait of openness upon which it depends. This is because they lack the tolerance for cognitive dissonance, a necessary component of suspension of disbelief in the enjoyment of fiction. It makes no sense to them that a story could be subjectively true while being factually false (or factually partial).
Hence, the sense of being deceived and betrayed. The fiction writer is an unworthy authority figure to the authoritarian mind. A proper authoritarian demagogue would tell his followers what they wanted to hear and would never then tell them that it was just fiction. The point of storytelling, for the authoritarian, is that it is told with utter conviction — it being irrelevant whether or not the authoritarian leader himself believes what he says, just that he pretends to believe.
Authoritarians aside, it should be noted that most people appear to be able to distinguish between truth and falsehood, between non-fiction and fiction. People will say they believe all kinds of things to be true. But if you give them enough of an incentive, they will admit to what they actually believe is true (priming them for rational/analytical thought would probably also help, as various studies indicate). And it turns out most people agree about a lot of things, even in politics. Dissociation has its limits, when real costs and consequences are on the line. But most storytelling, whether fictional or political, won’t effect the concrete daily life of the average person.
People want to believe stories and so will take them literally, especially when a story has no real impact. For example, believing in the literal reality that bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Christ is an attractive story for it being largely irrelevant, just a pleasant fiction to create a social bonding experience through ritual (and evidence indicates that many ancient people perceived such things metaphorically or imaginally, instead of literally; the mythical being a far different experience from the literal). Literal-minded people forget that something can have truth value without being literally true. That is what stories are about.
So, it’s possible if there had been some concrete and personal incentive for self-aware honesty (at least some of) those seemingly naive audience members would have admitted that they really did know that Todd Walton’s readings were fictional. It’s just that, under the actual circumstances with little at stake, their only incentive was their own emotional commitment in being drawn into the story. To be told it is fiction is like being told their experience is false, which would be taken as a personal attack. What they are missing, in that situation, is the willingness to separate their experience of the story from the story itself. It feels so real that they it would ruin their experience of it to imagine it not being real. That is a successful story.
By the way, this helps explain why Plato so feared the poets, the storytellers of that era. See some context for this in an earlier post of mine, On Truth and Bullshit: “Frankfurt talks about the ‘bullshit artist’. Bullshitters are always artists. And maybe artists are always bullshitters. This is because the imagination, moral or otherwise, is the playground of the bullshitter. This is because the artist, the master of imagination, is different than a craftsmen. The artist always has a bit of the trickster about him, as he plays at the boundaries of the mind.”
For some further thoughts from Iain McGilchrist:
“Anything that requires indirect interpretation, which is not explicit or literal, in other words requires contextual understanding, depends on the right frontal lobe for its meaning to be conveyed or received. The right hemisphere understands from indirect contextual clues, not only from explicit statement, whereas the left hemisphere will identify by labels rather than context (e.g. identifies it must be winter because it is ‘January,’, not by looking at the trees).
“Metaphor is the crucial aspect of language whereby it retains its connectedness to the world, and by which the ‘parts’ of the world which language appears to identify retain their connectedness one to another. Literal language, by contrast, is the means whereby the mind loosens its contact with reality and becomes a self-consistent system of tokens.”
“Metaphorical understanding has a close relationship with reason, which seems paradoxical only because we have inherited an Enlightenment view of metaphor: namely, that it is either indirectly literal, and can be reduced to ‘proper’ literal language, or a purely fanciful ornament, and therefore irrelevant to meaning and rational thought, which it indeed threatens to disrupt. It is seen as a linguistic device, not as a vehicle of thought.
What the literalist view and the anti-literalist view share is ultimately metaphor can have nothing directly to do with truth. Either it is simply another way of stating literal truth or else it undermines any claim to truth. But as Lakoff and Johnson show, ‘metaphor is centrally a matter of thought, not just words’. The loss of metaphor is a loss of cognitive content.”