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Power’s Ruse: Facts, Truth Games, and Narratives

References to a “post-truth” culture are increasing. The conflation of fact and truth is problematic. Fact and truth have become synonymous. Distinguishing them is critical. A fact can be understood as something that happens or does not happen. A fact is objective. For instance, someone either dies or does not die, emails are hacked or not hacked, glaciers are getting smaller or larger, and an oil pipeline is laid in either one place or another. Facts exist independent of understanding. A fact is not a truth, however.

Truths are subjective knowledges that are competed over. In Western history, privileged white men have dominated “truth game” competitions. Winners in these truth games have historically risen to positions of great social privilege. At the social level, philosophers, religious leaders, politicians, academics, and social scientists have participated in competitions where various claims are made about the true “nature” of things, or reality. Each regime in these historical contests claims a different method for their privileged knowledges about what is supposedly true. Philosophers claim it is their skills of logic; religious leaders claim it is their insights about God’s intentions; politicians claim it is the mandate of the people they represent; academics claim it is through their collective wisdom; and social scientists claim it is their research methods. In all cases, these regimes share the assumption that the pursuit of truth is both possible and essential.

Truth games are a ruse that disguises operations of power. Consider the effects on people’s lives of the following truth claims. The truth is white people are superior to people of color and men are superior to women. The truth is genders should be understood as either male or female. The truth is heterosexual relations are what nature intends. The truth is children are less wise than adults. The truth is non-believers are sinners. The truth is behaviors are always reflections of choice. The truth is thoughts are either rational or irrational. The truth is feelings can be divided into good, bad, healthy and/or repressed. The truth is it is helpful to diagnose people according to categories of mental illness. The truth is professionals have acquired expert knowledges that are relevant independent of the contexts of their clients’ lives. The truth is probability statistics and normative measures are unbiased ways to gather evidence for “best practices.” The “noble” pursuit of truth is clearly not a neutral act.

A post- or pre-truth culture is not possible because as human beings we are first and foremost interpretive beings. What distinguishes our species is our meaning-making skills. Our evolutionary “accident” helped make it possible for us to interpret experiences through narrative structures. In other words, we story our lives by linking our experiences over time according to a particular plot or theme. Our selection of experiences, which can include facts, is always subjective. There are always more events than can be included in any one story. Creating stories is what we are always and only doing, not discovering truths. We perfect this ability so early in our lives that we story our experiences mostly without awareness. Storying is as taken for granted by us as swimming is for fish. As soon as we start to make sense of any fact, including someone’s death or a pipeline proposal, we enter into subjective storying practices.

We have to recognize that truth claims do not offer neutral solutions for conflicting stories. What is more true? Is it more true that a proposed pipeline threatens Native American sacred land and represents another genocidal act of colonization, or is it more true that oil businesses have legal rights to build the proposed pipeline that meet “market needs?” To keep power relations visible, we have to turn to something other than the pursuit of truth. But, what is to be done if we acknowledge that facts cannot speak for themselves; if we recognize that competing over truths disguises power relations; and, if we let go of the fantasy that we are gradually learning more about how things are in reality? What are the implications of understanding ourselves as merely subjective meaning-makers, shaped by the stories available to us?

We can turn toward an acceptance of the responsibilities that come with seeing ourselves as co-authors, inextricably in community with one another. Oil executives might be curious about how their capitalist stories are received into the storylines of Native American communities. They might see it as a moral responsibility to honor these indigenous ways of understanding that have been dismissed through “less civilized” truth claims. They might assume the stories these Native American people have to tell are as legitimate and meaningful as their own, accept the discomfort of uncertainty as an ethic of care and respect, and engage in skills of listening and curiosity that had them desiring for understandings about how the stories they hear are linked hopes, dreams, and values that are deeply precious to them. In other words, they might take up the responsibility of inviting Native American representatives to be privileged authors in the storying about what a proposed pipeline means, and commit to making those stories as important to as their own.

A growing body of literature has been developed about this narrative worldview and its implications. There are pockets of communities in the United States and around the world that strive to live congruently with narrative ethics and values. From a narrative perspective, we can strive to do a much better job of being curious about the stories we are developing and their real effects, however unintended, on everyone’s lives and relationships. We can strive to take more responsibility for our meaning-making and the stories that we are helping to develop. We can strive to be less susceptible to passively accepting established truth claims that position us to be unwitting representatives of whatever meanings they privilege.

Every story, no matter how well intentioned, has unintended effects that cannot be known in advance of their telling. This is because no two people ever construct the exact same stories about anything. We have all put our particular lived experiences together in unique storylines around what matters to us, but we do not make it a priority to be curious about each other’s story. Instead of curiosity, competitions over truth frequently take place in relationships. Competitions over truth can occur in families between spouses, parents and children, and extended relations. They can occur in classrooms between teachers and students. They can occur in neighborhoods and communities. They can occur across races, genders, and socioeconomic classes. They can occur across physical abilities and religions. They can occur across nations, ethnicities and cultures. These competitions over truth are used to justify various wars that take real people’s lives, including children’s lives, every day.

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