The Truth is a Story

So, I mentioned earlier how the truth isn’t binary, even though we think that if you haven’t told the truth, then you’ve lied – and although we sort of accept that, we also know that it isn’t as cut-and-dried as that in reality.

For most people, if you witness an event, the facts of the event itself do not crystalise into your memory like data onto a computer disk. They seep into your memory via lots and lots of comparisons with other things you’ve experienced or have knowledge about (which we’ll discuss another day), but also they’re inextricably linked to your emotional responses to witnessing the event and the opinions you have of various occurrances or actions within that event. You absorb the event into your memory somehow (science doesn’t really explain how, and I’m not even going to speculate), but the point is, we don’t ourselves always know what “the truth” of that event was until we start to explain it to a third party. And when we explain, either by writing or talking or signing – we have to think about the event in a special way to be able to tell the story.

If we want our third party to really understand what it was that we saw, we have to do a lot of describing. We have to choose our words carefully to do it justice (more so than ever if we’re using English because there’s such a choice of vocabulary at our disposal), we have to set the scene properly so that when the loud noise (for example) broke the silence, our audience knows exactly how silent the silence before the event was, and how shattering the noise was. And we also need to tell you how the whatever-it-was felt to us, our theories, our speculation, our disbelief, our superlatives or indifference – all of that.

In thinking about how to describe something, and then perhaps getting some feedback on that description from others, the stoy of the truth is moulded and altered. Sometimes we know this is happening, and sometimes we don’t, but when we do, we probably think its because we’re getting better at explaining it, rather than that the story is changing. And in the subsequent re-tellings, we learn from our experiences of telling the story, so it gets modified and altered to make the story more accessible to the next person we tell. Eventually, the story we tell of the truth we saw with our own eyes, is still the truth; after all, we haven’t lied – but is it still the same as before?

Sometimes, particularly when I’m interviewing people about things they know they saw, we have to help them unpick the story that they tell and break it down to the bare factual bones of what they know versus what they assumed, thought, filled in the gaps for, inferred and imperceptibly made truth, that wasn’t. I’m not saying all that other stuff isn’t relevant, I’m just saying that the truth is more complicated than you first think. What’s revealing, is that the interviewee suddenly realises what they thought they knew as fact, might not be as perfect as they themselves believed…. and that is a bit frightening. It makes us feel vulnerable and uncertain and defensive – and that’s understandable. We like to think we know what we saw, but have we just remembered how to tell its story instead?

 

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