Looking Back: Fake News and the Right to Think for Myself

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I grew up with someone who lied – a lot. She lied when it was not in her best interest. She lied when it was in no one’s best interest. She lied when her story could easily be disproven. She lied when the mood was light and when the mood was serious.

She also told the truth – a lot. She sometimes told the truth when most people would have exercised more discretion, but she could be incisive. She also had many valuable skills and taught me practical, useful knowledge I am grateful for to this day.

People she upset labeled her a compulsive liar and broke off relationships. Folks inclined to be more gracious added, “Sally’s* version” with a wink to the end of any information they passed on from her.

When I asked about family history she related, my uncle said, “Well now, you know how she had trouble getting her story straight,” he said, adjusting his dusty cowboy hat. “But you know she meant well.”

We all learned she couldn’t get a story straight — eventually. The problem was that sometimes she told the truth. Important truth. Truth that required response.

I couldn’t trust what she said, but I couldn’t afford to dismiss her either. The major complicating factor was that I loved her dearly and knew that she loved me and did her best to care for me. I knew she had a good heart and would never intentionally hurt anyone, but the lying did hurt a lot of people, myself included. Kind, responsible family members cleaned up more than a few messes she left in her cheerful wake. They shrugged and privately gave me a more accurate version later.

It wasn’t until after she died that I read an article explaining the complicated, frustrating behaviour of the person that was part of my childhood environment. A disorder resulting from head trauma, or brain damage before birth, or as a result of advanced age, can cause a person to “confabulate.” Often, as in my caretaker’s case, parts of one story mix with the details of another story without the speaker being the least bit aware of blatant inaccuracies. Sometimes their brain will fill in forgotten memories with memories from another time, or a work of fiction, or even from another person’s story. In all innocence they trust their mind to give them accurate information and are hurt when you accuse them of making it up.

Sally sincerely believed she was telling the truth. Since she showed some other traits of learning disabilities, such as being almost illiterate, I began to understand. She was not intentionally lying after all. She would stick to her story even as people stared at her, slack-jawed at the audacity of her whoppers. She cried when they rejected her.

She could say, for example, “School is closed today because some bad kids stole a backhoe and burned it down when they hit a gas main.” The actual story was that school was closed because workers accidently hit a water pipe when they were working on the building extension. The part I needed to know was that my school was closed that day. The school that burned down was her school, half a century earlier. Sometimes it was like she saw a version of events through a distance-distorting rearview mirror and temporal space anomaly at the same time – but the essence was still there.

More than once I was embarrassed when I passed on a confabulated story. More than once I struggled with anger for believing all of it. In the years when I developed, like most teens, a radar for hypocrisy, I was not very respectful. I didn’t want to be seen with her. As an adult I honoured her and even enjoyed her, but kept a skeptical distance. She died more than thirty years ago and as I write this, tears fall because I know she loved me more than anyone before or since. I would love to hear her ridiculous synopsis of the six o’clock news about now, because as off-base as it could be, there was always an essential truth I needed to know in there somewhere.

Growing up in that environment taught me an important lesson. I cannot assume a report is entirely true. I cannot assume it is entirely false. The balance of accurate facts and misplaced facts cannot always be determined by the teller’s motives. We are all broken people in some way and our stories are filtered through experience, lack of experience, biases, selfish motives, altruistic motives — and even brain damage. I may not agree with Dr. House in the re-runs I’ve been watching that “everyone lies,” but I don’t believe everyone tells the whole truth and nothing but the truth either. God only knows what the whole truth looks like, but I want to hear what people have to say anyway.

Whether it’s the government, or social media sites, or heresy hunters who want to clamp down on sources of “fake news” or “bad teaching” or “uncertified medical opinions” and thereby determine truth for me, I want to shout no!

When someone tries to keep me from seeing the work of a writer, or a speaker, or photographer, or film maker because their narrative doesn’t fit the desired grid, I feel insulted. To eliminate sources “experts” consider fake is to imply there are some they consider to always be perfectly accurate.  I have to question their motives.

If I let another source do the critical thinking for me, I’m relinquishing a hard-earned skill and the opportunity to ask questions, spit out the bones, and humbly accept correction when I have swallowed something without exercising proper discernment. Worse than that, it means giving up access to important information that could be in there somewhere that I need to pay attention to. Creativity begins with thinking outside the box.

I believe we can ask God for wisdom and discernment. I believe we can pray for His light to shine in dark places and expose intentional lies and evil motives. I believe information should be as accurate as possible and age-appropriate when presented to children. I believe positions of trust require scrutiny and accountability. Justice must be seen to be done when trust is intentionally broken.  These things are important. But I also believe God gave us brains for a reason. Without exercise, they will atrophy.

I’m not a child anymore. Give me the freedom to think and discern for myself, please. I know how. Sally taught me.

*not her real name

4 thoughts on “Looking Back: Fake News and the Right to Think for Myself

  1. debit01

    So good. And yes confabulation is definitely a real thing. My granddaughter has some in utero brain damage and does this. She has no idea it isn’t true.

    Like

  2. Such a touching story, Charis. You’ve learned a valuable skill out of this difficulty: skill in separating truth from falsehood. You deserve the freedom to think and discern for yourself!

    Like

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