16 May 2012

Facts vs Truth

The other day I was reading a piece written about one of Canada's most famous authors, Farley Mowat.  Among several quotations from the man was his famous dictum that one should not let facts get in the way of the Truth.  I thought I would riff on that idea for a while.

As far as Mr Mowat is concerned, I sometimes agree with him and sometimes disagree.  He is, in my opinion, one of Canada's greatest storytellers, either living and dead, and he has beguiled and bewitched many a pleasant hour with his tremendous gift of spinning a yarn.  As such, even though I disagree with him on some issues, I cannot help but like the man.  As for this statement, like the man who said it, I both agree and disagree.

As a storyteller myself, I know what the difference between facts and truth are, and I will sometimes play fast and loose with both to make a good story.  David Allen, the old comic, used to say one should never let the facts get in the way of a good story.  Mowat, as a storyteller first, knows this truth well.

The point of a good story lies in tension and drama, and the ability of the teller of the tale to convey these to get the point across.  Facts are not always obliging in being dramatic or even interesting, and sometimes have to be skewed or sidestepped for the sake of the story.   There are things that may be true in reality that are false in fiction, by which I mean undramatic.

Take, for example, final reality: the debate between theists and atheists.  The existence or nonexistence of God may be true in reality, but it is always false in fiction, particularly speculative and fantastic.  With the element of the supernatural, a story may sail far beyond the earth, beyond the stars, and encompass the heights of heaven and the deeps of Hell; Good may wage is desperate battle with evil in a never ending struggle that holds the balance of not only the world but of all possible worlds.  Without it, life is a bio mechanical process, after which we are dead and food for maggots.  Nothing that happens between life and birth is of any consequence, save as we are prepared for worm food.

I think, for example, of the old sci-fi series Babylon 5.  Space Opera is normally not the home of theological speculations, but this show featured it often, and for a time it added to the show greatly.  The show started out as one of the finest examples of sci fi I had ever seen, but then it flamed out and died.  The death came on slowly at first, then more rapidly.  For me, the real telling point came at the end of the Shadow War.  The war had been built up at first as the rise of an ancient evil, gathering minions among the younger races, and opposed by only a few who could be harnessed by the good forces, to stand fast and not let the darkness of the shadow cover the galaxy again. And then it was revealed that there was no good and evil, no light nor shadow, only two opposing, equally valid yet mutually exclusive, philosophical points of view.  The climax was supposed to be the younger races throwing out the representatives of the old ways, in order to find a new way without their interference, but since there was nothing to choose between them, there was nothing in not choosing them either.  Just another philosophical point of view.  The whole matter was of no consequence in the end, just one group of worm meat opposing another.   I changed the channel.

But the idea of not letting facts get in the way of truth bleeds outside of the world of fiction and into the world of men, often with disastrous consequences.  Take Stalin and the Ukraine in the '30's.  Stalin created yet another one of his plans which was deemed to be the truth.  He would remove the farmers from the Ukraine, and replace them with Russians who would form collective farms.  These new farms would be more rationally organized and therefore more efficient that the early farms, and produce far more food than before.  The idea seemed so simple, so obvious, it could not but help be true.  That the collective farms would be farming the same land and the same amount of land as before, was a fact that could not get in the way of the truth.  That the new farmers were not really farmers at all, that farming requires a vast amount of knowledge capital, and that requiring non farmers to do as well as farmers is like replacing the entire cast of the Bolshoi ballet with non dancers and demanding they pirouette as well as the professionals, was another fact that was allowed to stand in the path of the truth.  That they failed, and the food was not grown as predicted, likewise could not stand in the way of the truth.  Stalin stated: "I don't care if they have it or not, we are taking it!" and the Russian Communists took all the food that was grown in the Ukraine as evidence of the truth of their improved ways, and the millions who died of starvation in the Ukraine because of the resulting famine was another mere fact that would not impede the truth.   That this sort of thing happened repeatedly under socialism is another tiny little fact that today's socialists do not allow to stand in the face of the truth that socialism works.

This sort of thing came up about a year ago when I read two articles in the newspaper within a week of each other.  The first was a statement released by Toronto Public Health which stated that the rate of syphilis infection in Toronto has increased tenfold since 2001.  Furthermore, 90% of the new infection rate were male.

This article was avoiding saying an unpleasant truth: the explosion in infection rate is fueled by the gay community, all the more remarkable because they form as small portion of the population.  They did not mention the word "gay" in the release because the gay community has fought very hard since the '80's and the rise of AIDS in the era to not be regarded as the bearers of disease. 

Frankly, I have sympathy with the Gay community in this matter.  The AIDS terror brought out the absolute worst in many people who should have known better, and the Gay community was marginalized and shunned like never before. Claims that AIDS was God's punishment against Gays could be heard regularly, even though that makes about as much sense as declaring that SIDS is God's punishment on babies.  The Gay response to the double thrust of a disease that seemed to be concentrated mostly in their community and the renewed hatred from the outside was to band together, organize, and fight back, harder than ever before.  Had Christians acted like Christians back then, they would not have been so successful in creating their new worst enemy.

So no using the word 'gay' in the context of a syphilis epidemic.  But then I read the second article, written by representatives of the gay community, telling out the truth of the success of the safe sex program, and congratulating their fellow gay community members for inventing and perfecting gay sex.  Thanks to them, the article said, sex is now safer for everyone.

Then why the rise?  Either safe sex is not working quite as well as is being let out, or 'men' are not using it.  I suspect both.

Right now, the only acceptable truth is that safe sex works, and rising rates of infection of Syphilis and Gonorrhea and, yes, AIDS, are mere facts that are not to get in the way of that truth, and that truth cannot be contradicted, not even to warn a small and very vulnerable part of the community that they are at risk again.  There are facts, and there are facts;  there are truths, and there are truths, and not all of them are created equal.

Facts are interesting things:  their root is shared with words like factories or manufacturing- they are things that are made, or made up.  Truth, on the other hand, is supposed to be unmade, uncreated and existing.  In the end, I think Mowat and others who speak of facts not being allowed to impede the Truth are getting it backwards.  They have manufactured the truth, which is to say, they made some facts, and they are not to be denied, questioned or debated.  They are not stopping facts from impeding the truth, but not allowing the truth to interfere with their "facts."

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