When Don Quixote tilted madly at his windmills, imagining them to be giants, he did so in defiance of reason and evidence. He did so without any sane expectation that he could be correct, yet also with deep nobility and desire to see the world beyond the trappings of society. He rejected one frame of reference, and replaced it wholly with another that transformed his vision. He wasn’t correct in any sense of the word—but he was audacious, and, in Cervantes’ imagining, something more than mad.
There are people out there who believe monumentally foolish things. They believe them in defiance of reason, decorum, and evidence. They tie their identities to those beliefs and go out of their way to both evangelize and condemn all who believe otherwise. Yet, too, their freedom to believe foolishly is a fundamental part of our societal freedom. Without it, we would never be free to examine or embrace the absurd; to critique and recompose our perspectives; or to imagine new things that fly far and freely beyond our current knowledge.
If we allow that truth is both subjective and evolving, rather than objective and immutable, we must also stop to consider all the ways it might change. I am a great believer in the power of context: when I see all the trappings and premises that accompany an idea, I understand the idea more fully and deeply. When I see the shape of the thing, I see also where it fits in the larger picture of the world.
Working from that premise, I am forced to conclude that it is not the wrongness of some ideas that renders them harmful, but rather it is their pretense. A brilliant novel can illustrate and inspire a deep understanding of true parts of the world, but it does so partly because it does not claim to be literal truth. The author and reader can make an agreement together to set aside the limits of literal truth and to construct a new a clearer understanding of something. And in many ways, art achieves understanding that is beyond the capacity of literal truth.
Present the same novel as non-fiction, and the reader is betrayed. Rather than being invited to construct a truth, the reader is invited to receive it, and yet they cannot because the foundation of the narrative is undone. Were the novel presented as novel instead of non-fiction, there would be no conflict—but the pretense to literal truth destroys the value of diverging from it.
Lest you think this example esoteric, there is no shortage of brilliant fiction with the pretense of fact—propaganda, politics, media, and our most contentious social issues are rife with it.
When Donald Trump claims he will build a wall, it is fiction—a well-chosen fiction that plays on other well-chosen fictions. It rests on the ideas that immigrants take American jobs, or suck away resources, or bring crime and disease: deep fictions rooted in xenophobia and racism, but disguised as economic fact. If only we could acknowledge that these are fictions; perhaps then, as a society, we could also cope with the fact that they feel true to so many.
When Jenny McCarthy claims vaccines cause Autism and rests it on her authority as a mother, she, too, gives fiction undue pretense—she spins a fiction that authority as a mother is also authority as epidemiologist, and that her fear supersedes evidence. Her fiction, too, is built on the deep-rooted fictions of others, such as the idea that anything not definitively natural is unsafe. If we acknowledge this is fiction, we can accept that it also highlights a truth: the greatest dangers to humanity are those we have created ourselves.
When we pretend that a national economy is more important than global ecology, we spin the fiction that the former is distinct from the latter rather than founded on it. And along with it, we spin fictions about our understanding of human economies, and fictions about human exceptionalism, and fictions about boundless ingenuity. But what if we let this be a fiction? Couldn’t it be our aspiration and inspiration both? Couldn’t it drive us to fix the places where our economy destroys our ecology?
So many fictions, yet they could be instructive if they were presented as something other than truths.
So the pretense, I think, is the fundamental issue. To fiction the pretense of literal truth erases it’s value, and cheapens our understanding instead of enriching it. The beliefs that exist outside and beyond our current evidence do have value; not as truths themselves, but as foils to sharpen and clarify the truths we do have.
Perhaps it is only our freedom to believe foolishly that makes believing otherwise any virtue at all. And perhaps it is only through exploring fictions that we understand the actual truth.
Image Credit: Javier Linera