Paul Ardoin is an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy and Classics at the University of Texas at San Antonio. His book, Not a Big Deal (Nebraska, 2021) is new this month.
Like very many people, I’ve been confused, fascinated, and scared by what seems to be the drastic expansion and acceleration, and the intensifying impact of things like fake news. Lately, it feels like we’ve seen something of a showcase of the varied and devastating harms such phenomena can cause. Obviously, there’s nothing new about lying, but there is certainly something urgent about our “post-truth” moment.
In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries called “post-truth” its word of the year, after the U.S. Presidential Election and the U.K. Brexit referendum generated seemingly endless commentary about “post-truth politics.” In the five years since, the condition seems to have grown worse, even in the face of obvious life and death stakes: with my breakfast this morning, I read the results of a July 14-17, 2021 CBS News YouGov poll that found an increasing percentage of those American adults who have not had a COVID-19 vaccination cite as reasons for this that they “don’t trust the government” and “don’t trust the science.” Hospital rooms are filling up with Delta variant patients that are almost exclusively unvaccinated, yet the same poll finds that the “fully vaccinated” are the most concerned about that variant, while the “not fully / not vaccinated” population is the least concerned. We all seem to be getting a crash course in the potential effects of misinformation campaigns that can now reach tens of millions or more through television, radio, and especially the internet.
What does any of this have to do with what I do, though, as a scholar in the Humanities, who teaches and researches about books and films? Well, I’m interested in narratives and their audiences. And I’m interested in the social, cultural, and political environments in which we tell narratives (even the conversational stories we tell one another). When our “post-truth” environment seems to have broadly licensed us to simply yell “Fake news!” in response to any news we don’t like (whether it’s actually fake news or not), then how can a speaker ever convince a resistant listener about anything? How might we go about delivering narratives when certain audiences immediately group, classify, and dismiss those narratives as, say, “preachy” or “whining” texts?
For as long as there have been texts, there have been people who want to make some of them go away. Narrated information can make audiences feel uncomfortable, attacked, accused. Recent complaints about “Critical Race Theory” texts, for example, group and dismiss (and aim to legislate out of classrooms) a whole body of literary, history, and philosophy texts some parents, politicians, and pundits claim attack and accuse certain students and racial groups, sowing discord and preventing national unity. These “CRT” narratives are making trouble for our happy multicultural nation—goes the argument—by singling out and attacking white audiences.
What can a narrator—fictional or real—do in such a situation? Their “race text” (or “feminist text,” or other brand of “killjoy” or “troublemaker” text, to adapt some terminology from thinker Sara Ahmed) is classified and dismissed before being completely read, or seriously engaged with, or fully perceived at all. (A similar problem can occur when a text has a too-friendly audience that may classify and embrace a text before really perceiving it.) More precisely, such texts seem to be perceived through categories, or maybe it’s only the categories we’re perceiving at all. What a tricky, perhaps impossible, narrative situation!
It turns out there are a number of films, novels, short stories, podcast fictions, and comic books that seem to have been working on this problem for a while. I wrote Not a Big Deal: Narrating to Unsettle to investigate what problems those texts diagnose, how their narratives operate, and what those texts have to teach us about how we might more effectively talk to hostile audiences and how we might even change some minds. Just as importantly, the texts teach us about how we can become more perceptive audiences ourselves, and so less likely to uncritically perceive through categories and then immediately dismiss or embrace before truly engaging. These narratives offer some ways we might begin to unsettle even some of our most intractable post-truth ways of perceiving.