Truth in Society

October 20, 1994

Prompt #28

Tales, tellers and truths . . .

This morning you met in your focus group to read and respond to each other's "discussion papers." This afternoon you'll be together again for approximately 75 minutes to talk about what's been happening, and to make decisions about what each of you will read next.

Among the questions we suggested that you think about when preparing your discussion paper were a couple that your group may want to spend some time considering now: "[D]o you sense that your book's author has her own opinion about the episode of belief? What is it?"

That each author has a "point of view" which orients her work is hardly a startling idea. But until now we have tended to treat the books we've been using as sources of information about the "real world events" in and around Salem of 1692, Dayton in 1925 and Jonestown in 1978. We peered through the texts, trying to glimpse the non-textual reality that lay behind the pages.

Texts are always more than depositories of information. Instead of simply treating them as resources, now let's view them as topics in their own right. We are accustomed to doing that with literary texts (novels, short stories, poems). But the kinds of book most of the members of your group have been reading are not conventionally seen as literary; they are historical, sociological, biographical and journalistic. With a book of this kind we are less inclined to linger over the way in which the text itself was put together, and to contemplate how it works for (on) us. We are more inclined to slide quickly through the text, back to the "reality" to which it supposedly refers.

As we read more and more about the "same event," we discover that the various accounts differ. And sometimes the versions are not merely different, but discrepant and inconsistent. The differences can be about the "facts" -- who really did what, when, how. But often they will have to do with more complicated issues, ones that centre on why things happened as they did, and what motivated individuals to act in certain ways, and what broader significance should be attached to the so-called "facts." More complicated still are differences arising from moral judgement -- how the roles of heroes, villains and fools are properly assigned.

One common way to talk about how an author's subjective viewpoint is entered into her writing is by means of the notion of bias. Using that word lead us on a mission to ferret out the personal beliefs and preconceptions of the "teller of the tale." Bias is clearly something regrettable, something to be eliminated altogether if possible, and otherwise reduced to a minimum. Bias is "noise"; the subjective judgement of the teller interferes with our ability to clearly hear the objective information about the events themselves. The assumption is that when authorial bias is properly nulled out, we are left with nothing more and nothing less than an objective, accurate and complete report of "what actually happened."

But let's think about this a bit further. From what vantage point could such an objective and self-contained report be assembled? And how would we recognize such a report if we encountered one? There can be no knowledge without a knower, no text without an author, no tale without a teller. And the teller is always situated within a concrete here-and-now, and thus assumes a particular point of view vis-a-vis her tale (and, in the process, vis-a-vis us, her listeners/readers). How adequate is the notion of bias to understanding the imprint of the teller on her tale? Can we find other ways to approach and deal with the teller's commitment to her tale?

One thing that we can do is include, along with questions about the events themselves, ones that focus on the text and its author. What do we know about the author who is making a claim for our attention? With what authority does she speak? What does she explicitly tell us about how she went about gathering and arranging her information? To what extent do we see her proclaiming her sympathies? To what extent must we infer them, from such things as her choice of words, the amount of time devoted to different aspects and positions, what gets put into the foreground and what gets relegated to the background -- and what gets left out entirely? Thinking about these questions puts us in a position where we are able to make reasonable judgements concerning the credibility we are willing to grant a particular account.

Another thing that we can do -- and have actually begun doing -- is compare and contrast different accounts. Given that every single account will reflect the point of view of its author, it seems we need to seek out a variety of accounts that we can then play off against each other. This in turn opens up new questions, such as: What are the implications of our going along with one author's analysis for the ways in which we can take up another author's interpretation, made from a significantly different point of view?

We arrive at the stage where we are willing to give up the quest for a single, self-contained, definitive account, ones that provides fully satisfying answers to all our questions. We position ourselves so that we can triangulate on whatever issue or problem we are struggling with. (And this also involves some critical self-reflection about our own assumptions, interests and sets of relevancies.)

Triangulating . . .

None of us was there when "it" happened (Salem witch hunts, Scopes trial, Jonestown deaths). And no one who was in Salem in 1692 is around for us to talk to. Although it's conceivable that we might come in contact with someone who could give us a first-hand account of People's Temple or the Monkey Trial, that isn't very likely. What we are left with are these books and articles. Some of the material was written by individuals who were "on the scene" (e.g., the memoirs of Bryant, Scopes and Darrow, the reflections of certain of Jim Jones' followers and his sons, the New York Times stories). But isn't it the case that most of what we've been reading is based on perceptions that have been "mediated" in various ways? The various authors put together their versions of what happened by reading, writing, discussing and thinking. In other words, they did exactly the same kinds of things that we are now doing!

The diagram is a simplification. Among other things it does not depict the triangulation that is taking place around your table, as one colleague responds to another's "take" (and in the process may be modifying both her own and the other's understanding). A more accurate diagram would overlay these local conversations (conducted both oral and textual) with the extra- local ones (conducted primarily textually).

What do we do now?

We can begin by inkshedding the green sheets that you stapled on to your discussion papers. Mark them in whatever ways seem appropriate. Be on the lookout in particular for statements which refer to (or which themselves indicate) differences in points of view.

After a period of discussion, we'll move towards making decisions about what second book each member will now read. You may elect to find something that deals with the same or a similar topic as your first book, but which seems to be written from a different point of view.

This might well be one of the books that you've just learned about through a colleague's discussion paper. Alternately, later today or tomorrow you may go to the library to track down a new book to add to our bibliography. (Don't forget to update the bibliography by following the procedure outlined in Prompt #26.)

Our expectation is that by 8:30 Tuesday morning you will be far enough into this second book that you'll be ready to formulate an initial response that you can share with your focus group colleagues.

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