Our lives are being determined not by objective truth but by the stories we spin around it.
As a second wave of COVID-19 swept across the US late last year, hospital staff were confronted by patients who didn’t like them wearing masks, and by others who angrily protested, even to their last breath, that they could not possibly have the virus because it was fake news.
It’s hard to take this in. The nurses, aides and doctors in these incidents, themselves suffering from too little sleep and the trauma of caring for very ill patients in an overstretched hospital, had a right to think patients would at least be civil to them.
But that’s what happens when people who believe any regulation is a breach of their human rights have their prejudice reinforced by everything they see, hear and read. For them, traditional news sources have been supplanted by search and social platforms like Google and Facebook, whose often-useful algorithms can also draw users into some very narrow, very dark alleys indeed.
Those dark alleys led to the Congressional censure last week of Marjorie Taylor Greene, a newly-elected member who has repeated false slurs against political enemies, while promoting calls for House speaker Nancy Pelosi to be shot and claims that Joe Biden cheated to win the presidency.
Last week she sought to distance herself from some of the more hair-raising conspiracy theories doing the rounds under the QAnon banner. But she clearly likes going down those dark alleys – like many public figures, including Australian federal MP Craig Kelly.
Drawing on clinical evidence, Australian health specialists have concluded that drugs widely touted by non-scientific sources as effective treatments for COVID-19 are not just ineffective but probably unsafe. Though neither a doctor nor a medical scientist, Kelly has objected strongly to their findings. It’s his story and he’s sticking to it.
Such blatant challenges to established historical and scientific knowledge by people with no specialist expertise would have been unimaginable to this cadet journalist in the 1960s. Back then, journalism was presented to me as something akin to science, where objective truth reigns supreme.
Like all conscientious journalists I worked hard to separate objective truth from my beliefs and prejudices. It’s why so many journalists were driven to despair by Donald Trump as he sought to make his fabricated universe the national norm.
Despite Trump’s best efforts, objective truth remains the main touchstone of modern journalism. But over many years I came to discover that in the free-for-all of humanity, it’s not the whole story.
The problem about understanding human life is that it requires us to investigate ourselves. Scientists have been able to reach objective truth – or something quite close to it – about a vast swathe of things from the composition of stars and the dynamics of climates and ecosystems to how atoms and viruses behave. But they have never quite nailed themselves.
For instance, centuries of scientific study have failed to reveal what the mind is, or consciousness. We know a lot about how our brains and nervous systems pass signals by means of electrical impulses, but science is all at sea over feelings like hope, love, anger, fear and pain. We know they exist, and science can tell us what caused them, but it cannot pinpoint what they actually are.
Science also struggles with our allegiance to religion, political ideology, nation, corporation, and law. We have invented all these, and more, as part of the process of organising ourselves. They are not real objects or phenomena, things that science can define and categorise for us. Yet these imagined things shape the stories that dominate our lives.
As a journalist, I can’t observe humanity objectively because I’m part of it. We all attach ourselves to one or other of those imagined things and their stories not because we’re in la-la land but because they help organise us and make sense of our place in the great scheme of things.
Kelly, Green, the protesting patients who survived the virus and the people who trashed the US Capitol a month ago all have their stories of things they blame for their states of mind, like the “dark state” and the do-gooders who support it. Saying they’re wrong, poking fun at them, even prosecuting them will not change their minds. Only time and changing circumstances can do that.
My own story goes like this: The Trump nightmare laid bare the fragility of liberal democracy, the lure of an artful narrative, and the power of immersive experience over objective truth. The road ahead will meander all over the place, and be very bumpy. But as always, it won’t be dull.