The Blurring of Fact

July 17, 2015 § 2 Comments

Tom Montgomery Fate Tom Montgomery Fate offers a thoughtful and enlightening look at the misuse of the term creative nonfiction in light of Rachel Dolezal’s recent use of the term. Here’s an excerpt, followed by a link to the full essay:

Dolezal’s misunderstanding of creative nonfiction is not hers alone. And it may reveal something about our culture’s increasing tendency to blur facts and truth when it’s convenient or entertaining. The perpetual tsunami of “news” on a 24-7 cycle, and the lightning speed of new technologies — smart phones for instance — makes this blurring both easier to practice and to identify. And as more people experiment with constructing multiple identities — on Facebook and other online communities — the virtual truth of personal identity may sometimes veil or distort the actual. If NBC news anchor Brian Williams had not been caught in the “creative nonfiction” that he came under enemy fire in Iraq in 2003, this virtual fact might have appeared in his memoir (which he needn’t now write). Should the economic opportunities be irresistible, and Dolezal decide to tell her “black is the new white” story in a memoir, the actual and virtual truths may again blur.

When we discuss fact and truth in the creative nonfiction classes I teach, we often read “The Site of Memory,” an essay by Toni Morrison, in which she reminds readers that while facts are random and do not require human intelligence, literary truth is not random and does require human intelligence. We spend significant time talking about what Morrison means-about why/how/when we can distinguish between fact and truth in our own work. That’s sometimes not as easy as it sounds.

The two facts I listed above about Dolezal are empirical — provable. That is one of the qualities of a fact. Right? It’s a fact that my teenaged son is 5 feet 9 inches tall. However, that fact was not true last year. It’s a fact that there are seeds in a watermelon. Or, well, at least that was a fact when I was a kid. Now there are seedless hybrids. It was once a fact that the world was flat. Another wrinkle: empiricism is relative and facts evolve. “Facts are facts,” but they can be wildly manipulated — often by politicians and corporations — to “prove” the truth they must construct in order to get elected or to sell stuff.

Read Fate’s entire essay in The Chicago Tribune

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