I have written in this space before in praise of our story-hungry nature, that our love of each other’s stories is the best of us human beings. But it occurred to me recently that it can also lead us astray. Not everything is a “story” — that is, if a story is something specific to the teller, and if another witness to the story can tell another version — sometimes things just are as they are.
Or are they?
On the radio, a journalist was speaking of the facts of a situation. A caller called in to assert that there was “another side” to the “story.” But are not facts something other than elements of a “story”? Are they?
There are deep histories of philosophical and scientific discussions of what is “truth,” “perception,” what is “real.” I’m sure Nietzsche had something juicy to say about it. Can there be such a thing as a fact? Or indeed was the caller correct — there is always another way to interpret, another “side,” another story? Is a fact always open to interpretation?
I’m reading a murder mystery. Based on the blood stains, how dried they are, how the body attended to the wound, the fact seems to be the person died between 3:00 and 4:30 a.m. Or did it happen earlier and the person held a bandage to the wound, with some antiseptic on it, so it could have happened earlier; or it was particularly dry that day so the blood dried faster, so it could have happened later? Was the getaway car blue? Not if the witness was colorblind.
What a slippery slope is truth. How can we wake in the morning and step onto the floor if all is in doubt? I want the caller to be wrong. A fact is a fact and there is no story, no other side. I worry that if I believe it, it’s a fact; if you “disagree” over a “fact,” you’re just wrong. Right? But how do we know, and how do we know what we think we know, and who is “we” and do we know things differently from one day to the next?
Is it symptomatic of this strange world we live in right now that I am even querying “fact”? If there is no such thing as a fact, how do we manage? If everything is story, and there is always another side, how do we, we nation-builders, we beings of communication and cooperation, how do we ever do anything together, if we can’t even agree on a basic understanding of the situation at hand?
I think about two paleolithic hominids arguing over animal scat. “That’s saber-tooth tiger poop. We better get outta here.” “No it’s not, it’s dried muskox poop.” “Is too.” “Is not.” Etcetera.