Fiction as truth

This is a story that dates back to my Master’s program in Speech Communication, a program that had been taken over by hard, solipsistic post-modernists.

In a lowlight, Grant Kien made a claim that I reduced to “fiction is truth.” I questioned that and Kien warned me not to challenge it, asserting as professors sometimes do when they aren’t really prepared to do so, that he was fully prepared to defend the claim. I, of course, considered the claim ludicrous on its face and sensing that I had made my point, asked, “Why would I do that?”

He and my classmates undoubtedly noted the broad smile on my face.

But over the years since, I have come to see ways in which the claim might be valid.

First and perhaps most obviously, fiction can sometimes be used to state what cannot be said directly, sometimes to audiences that would not hear it otherwise. Star Trek, for better or for worse, has been notorious for this over a history now spanning over 50 years, several series, and several movies. I’m a faithful viewer, even as my own experience of this life has been starkly at odds[1] with the optimistic premise that humanity can and will do better.

Second, fiction can serve as a prophetic warning. Would we, in seriousness, call George Orwell’s 1984[2] or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale[3] false? Such books need not reproduce the future precisely to serve as warnings. Domestic spying and political doublespeak in the U.S. and elsewhere often evokes 1984; Atwood’s work presents a terrifying and logical culmination of social and traditionalist conservatism.

More subtly, Edward Said critically analyzed fiction of the period as a window into British imperial thinking.[4] Fiction here is evidence.

But if I had to guess, Kien was addressing the integrity of a work within a suspension of disbelief. If, under a coherence theory of truth, a novel is consistent, it takes on, even if only for the reader’s moment, a certain “truth.”

Needless to say, Kien explained none of this and my impression of post-modernism was not improved. A classmate, Kevin Pina, took up the challenge, worrying about his young daughter, saying that she needed to be clear on the distinction between fantasy and reality, and I don’t recall that Kien substantively responded.

All this arises as that same classmate, who is still teaching at California State University, East Bay (CSUEB), but as far as I know, who never went on to earn a Ph.D., expressed what I interpreted as surprise on Twitter about the neoliberalization of education. He felt patronized by my response, is pissed, and I have muted him. Life is too short for this crap.

The neoliberalization of education is troubling for its enforcement of older ideas, that education should serve first as instilling discipline for a compliant, conformist population,[5] and second as job training for further enriching capitalists, rather than as inculcating critical thinking skills needed for civic participation. Notably, educators such as Paulo Freire[6] and John Dewey pioneered contrary approaches; the former came after traditionalist conservative Richard Weaver and the latter drove him apoplectic.[7] Irony lies here in the juxtaposition of a claim to practicality, a pragmatic theory of truth, in which what “works” must be held to be “true,” with a diminishing of social injustice, a diminishing of the reality of many students, certainly that of many students whom I taught at CSUEB.

Standpoint theory holds that truth is subjective; we can only perceive reality and “truth” from our own social locations. In qualitative inquiry, we embrace this and are required to state our locations and how they affect our experiences, so that other scholars may begin to judge how that affects our conclusions. This is a necessary honesty.

The neoliberalization of education denies that honesty as it affirms a quasi-positivist, quantitative approach to truth that assumes a correspondence between the perceptions of the powerful and reality. In this, the social locations of the powerful are treated as objective standpoints; the rest of our locations are diminished as merely “subjective.” It is, remarkably, simultaneously an affirmation of Kien’s approach to truth and its contrast.

We are better off with fiction.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “About my job hunt,” Not Housebroken, n.d., https://disunitedstates.org/about-my-job-hunt/
  2. [2]George Orwell, 1984 (New York: Signet, 1977).
  3. [3]Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (New York: Anchor, 1986).
  4. [4]Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage, 1994).
  5. [5]Richard M. Weaver, Visions of Order (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1995.
  6. [6]Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum, 2006).
  7. [7]Richard M. Weaver, Visions of Order (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1995.

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