The only thing more annoying and insulting than being lied to is watching someone believe in their own false witness. It’s hurtful when it’s a personal matter and induces cynicism when it’s done in a broader arena such as the political or artistic fields.
It’s a subject that’s been kicking around in my head for a couple months, ironically spurred by watching Mike Daisey talk about the Stop Kony project on the MSNBC show Up With Chris – less than a week before he was outed for his own project’s dishonest shortcomings. (I had actually never heard of Daisey before, having somehow missed the now-infamous This American Life episode.) Both “Stop Kony” and Daisey’s “Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” have been shown to play fast and loose with the facts, and in “Jobs” many facts were manufactured wholesale. But my issue is with emotional honesty (and manipulation) over hard facts.
It’s a little hard to articulate how we know when an artist is lying to him/herself. But we do know it, even if we can’t point to hard facts the deceiver is denying. There is something of the matter of gut feeling – knowing deep inside when someone is being dishonest and vice versa when someone is sincere. We listen for emotional honesty as much as factual accuracy, but the acuity for detecting former cannot be accessed through a rational process. It’s the difference between being honest and telling the truth. One can be dishonest and still not perjure oneself.
When dishonesty is in straightforward speech we can sort of hear it as negative honesty – the inversion of truth. We hear it because of what isn’t said, what was danced around. Sometimes we notice the scaffolding of an ad hoc narrative that’s being constructed to support this version of events. Maybe we take note of certain points in the testimony that appear to make the speaker uncomfortable and discern that the discomfort stems from avoiding the truth of the matter. But again, how do we know? Uh… we just know. Practice maybe? Cultivating skepticism? Being burned before?
Like with learning to tell when someone is misrepresenting facts, figuring out when it’s happening requires being versed in the subject at hand, having been around the block once or twice and, perhaps, having a grasp on what it means to pass along falsehoods. Maybe we know when kids are lying because we remember being 8 and desperate to get out of trouble. Maybe we know when a politician is skirting an issue because taking sides on tendentious subjects is not a move that wins more votes than it costs. Maybe we dismiss artistic endeavors as precious or maudlin because deep inside we know when an artist is pulling his punches.
Jason Russell, creator of the Kony2012 video, isn’t exactly an artist but an activist employing art to cultivate support for his cause. But Mike Daisey is an artist whose last project had a bit of an activist agenda to it. There is nothing wrong with either, so long as due respect is paid to the audience and we aren’t insulted with exaggerations and fabrications.
It’s important to note this matter of truth in the realm of artistry, because even we who create and invent as a matter of expression have to do so honestly. Otherwise we are no better than the boy who cried wolf. Not only will we fail to get attention when we get our message right, we will have insulted our potential audience thoroughly. And frankly, at base, we will have failed to do right by our chosen art.
Daisey could have had a powerful presentation simply based on the true facts. Likewise, Russell could have plucked many a heartstring without inducing indigestion had he not conflated certain circumstances and obfuscated others.
The point of doing right by our art, creative integrity, is as profound as it is intangible. No one but the artist is really going to know where she dodged a difficult moment by softening the blow of her own expression. On the inverse, when an artist creates narrative shortcuts because the “real” story is complicated and telling it would be a belabored process the audience may understand the necessary affect is still in place, however they are likely to feel alienated and unwilling to trust their own emotions.
I think it’s why sometimes genre art, especially in literature, gets a blanket bad rap. All the trappings of genre are supposed to expose further insight to the human condition, give or take, but they can also trap and occlude it with dressing and tropes that prioritize unreality. Rayguns and spaceships can turn a perfectly decent study of isolation and paranoia into a chest thumping, tall man fantasy. Lace bodices and antiquated property laws both open the chance for a story about the difficulty of trusting love in an era of conflicting interests or it can become an overwrought tale where the cad gives up his roguish ways for the virtuous maid. The second versions tend to yield more gut pleasure but anyone looking for the truth knows – in that same “gut” place – that it’s just not so.
In activist art as with genre stories, the emotional truth of a piece can get lost when human complexity is ignored. This is not to say the audience won’t feel anything. Even emotional falsehoods can be told with great affect, driving immense interest on the part of the audience. But, as with the story of the Boy who Cried Wolf, altogether too soon the audience will learn not to trust their emotions when they know a deeper story is afoot and that there is an agent purposefully keeping it from them. And altogether too often distrust of one episode breeds distrust of any ensuing efforts both by the same artist and other artists working in the same genre.
Some other time I’ll have to write an entry on Art and Untruth. Because it’s not like it doesn’t sell.