"Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of 'touching' a man's heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it." --G.K. Chesterton

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The essential nature of the humble fact

Mowat exposed as a fabricator of 'facts.'
What is "true?" I am no philosopher or theologian, but it's still a question that I've attempted to answer scores of times over the past 20 years at conferences I've attended, speeches I've given, and articles I've written.
Of course, knowing absolutely what is true is beyond the scope of we mere mortals; nevertheless, I've long believed that we humans should strive for the truth, and that truth does exist. (In stating this, I am deeply at odds with moral relativists.) We strive for the truth, I say, by collecting facts and then organizing them into a coherent whole--a coherent whole that we might describe as providing at least a window on the truth.
This issue comes to mind with the recent death of writer Farley Mowat, the much-lauded Canadian writer who had a rather different view on telling "true" stories.  As revealed in an historic Saturday Night cover story, Mowat made up substantial parts of one of his most famous "true" accounts of living in the North.
When confronted with this fact, Mowat's answer was that his story was still "true" in that it conveyed a view of the world that he considered to be the correct and true one. In other words (his own, as a matter of fact), he never let facts stand in the way of a good story.
Here's how one recent obituary  described his approach to story-telling:
 "My m├ętier lay somewhere in between what was then a grey void between fact and fiction," he wrote.  
He delivered an even stronger defence during a 1999 Harbourfront International Festival of Authors discussion with Peter Gzowski, the then CBC host who passed away in 2002.
When Gzowski challenged Mowat about the volume of facts needed in writing non-fiction, the passionate writer declared: "F--k the facts!"
I would argue, however, that Mowat was wrong and that one is doomed to fail in one's attempt to tell a true story or make a true assertion if one attempts to do so by building one's arguments on a foundation of distortions, falsehoods and, well, lies.
Consider two builders setting out to construct a brick home. One has bricks that are sound and well-formed, the other uses bricks that are shoddily made and irregular. I don't need to tell you whose house will be "truer".
Getting the facts right is essential. A reader or an audience member should not trust a conclusion (that is, an assertion of truth) if it is known that the facts that support that conclusion are fantasy.

1 comment:

  1. What is the purpose of fiction, if not to make stuff up?