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Fake News and Ethical Storytelling

Don't worry. If you disagree with this blog post, you can just dismiss it as fake news.

I am currently leading a three-week study on a book by an old friend and philosophical and spiritual mentor, Chad Meister. In the first night, we discussed the concepts of objective truth versus relativism (the idea that whatever you believe is true for you and whatever I believe is true to me, even is our beliefs contradict). Then we got into talking about worldviews.

Relativism was quite in vogue for a while there in the 90s and early 2000s. It's never really quite gone away. But one thing has recently dramatically brought to light the inherent shortcomings of relativism: fake news.

Suddenly, it matters very much that there are objectively true and false statements and that something is true if it corresponds to reality, not just if I sincerely believe it. In the age of fake new, it would do us good if more of us decided to become "Mythbusters" and apply a healthy dose of skepticism to the things we might run across in our social media feeds. And this is true both of left and right leaning news feeds. We're all prone to confirmation bias.

So what does this have to do with storytelling?

The X-Files, of course!

I always found it fascinating that while moral, philosophical, and religious relativism seemed rather popular as a means for folks not to have to deal with some very real disagreements, there was a show that hung its entire existence on the notion that there is objective truth. It's out there. And the characters were cutting through lies to try to arrive at it. After all, if there's no objective truth, then what the hell were Mulder and Scully chasing after?

But what about stories? Aren't they just lies we entertain ourselves with?

Can Fiction and Truth Coexist?

As I've written about in the past, stories serve some pretty crucial functions in helping our brains make sense of reality and survive a dangerous world. The deeper truth of stories is not something that can be understood through propositional statements or objective correspondence with reality.

What goes on with stories is that we submerge ourselves into a world of empathy and experience. We inhabit fictional minds, often placing ourselves in situations quite foreign to us. While a logical argument can be quite powerful, experiencing life from someone else's perspective has a direct impact on our emotions.

Why does this matter? Well, we're emotional beings as well as creatures of logic. Our brains are equipped to help us survive, and are naturally drawn to things that feed this need. Storytelling does this quite well. And because of this, we immerse ourselves in completely fabricated experiences. In the process, we are able to discover fascinating truths about the human experience.

Do Stories Lie Us?

Can stories give us a warped view of life?

It seems possible to me. If we begin to feel like life's troubles should be figured out and resolved quickly, it could be that we're being too conditioned by sitcoms with their 30-minute structure of problem, hilarious struggle, resolution. It could be that we're watching or reading too many stories with uncomplicated happy endings.

Stories can offer up erroneous or illogical worldviews that strike us as emotionally compelling within the limited context of the story. But further reflection can leave a bad state in our mouths. I think a perfect recent example of this is the movie Passengers, which I've already written about.

Sometimes, a story just has a central idea that is ultimately illogical or unethical. This is my main criticism of Django Unchained. There's much about the film that is fantastic, but at its core is a reckless fixation of revenge porn. In the end, I walked away from the film feeling dirty and worse about the world. It was like wearing profoundly distorted lenses for a few hours and then taking them off and feeling sick to my stomach and having a headache.

Other times, a story might have a well-meaning intent, but still lose its way due to the experiential nature of stories. A great example of this, to my mind, is Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street. I sincerely believe the film wants to capture a disturbing reality and even function on some level as a cautionary tale. However, given the film's focus on the exuberant and eccentric main character, I feel that the inadvertent effect of the film is to end up glorifying very thing it might seek to criticize: a life of excess devoid of ethics.

Left unexamined, our experience of such stories might offer our subconscious minds rather conflicting information about the world we live in and how we might best navigate life.

Any Solutions?

I think there are a few options in light of these challenges. And let me just upfront express that complete avoidance of all such stories is not a tenable solution. Allow me to quote from C. S. Lewis form his fantastic book, An Experiment in Criticism.

"We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out)."

First, we experience. Then, we examine.

So the first solution is to go, and experience stories. But don't stop there! Examine the stories you're experiencing. This is of such importance to me that for years I ran The River Film Forum and now co-host Only a Movie on YouTube as means to encourage people to engage with the reflective process of thoughtful engagement with stories (in this case, movies in particular).

My other solution is for a specific group of people: storytellers.

I challenge storytellers to think about what the ethical and philosophical implications of their stories might be. Thoughtful engagement from the storyteller is far more likely to lead to thoughtful engagement by readers or viewers. Now, this doesn't mean that I want storytellers to be didactic or that all storytellers must put their ethical implications above entertainment value. Far from it. But I do think that these things must be taken into account and engaged with on the ground level and throughout the creative process.

A couple years ago, I was the cinematographer for a short film that deals with a particular social issue through the lens of the horror genre. In the process, the screenwriters wrestled at length with how to best present the story. At one point, the revisions took the story away from what I had felt was an important aspect of the "monster" at the center of the story. However, in conversations with the producer/writers Diana Porter and Kyle Johannessen, it became clear to me that they had a point about what the potential ethical pitfalls of the original script might turn out to be and why a new direction would be beneficial.

I am proud of thoughtfulness of Porter and Johannessen in this process. And while from the perspective of story structure the original idea was relatively solid, the potential for the film to fall into a particular misogynist territory while trying to criticize misogyny (kind of how The Wolf of Wall Street fell into glorifying the thing it meant to criticize). I'm glad they talked sense into me. The end result is "Looker," a film I'm really proud to have been part of and one that I think plays well in the horror genre while avoiding shooting itself in the foot.

That experience reminds me that the creative process is best when done in community. We need to be challenged and questioned and pushed to consider new angles, to contemplate implications and interpretations of our stories, both intentional and unintentional. The people I make art with consistently make me a better, more thoughtful artist.

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