Years ago, my husband was flying home from a work event on a small plane during an election season. He found himself seated in front of a Fox News reporter who was loudly sharing tricks of the trade with his seat-mate. My spouse, shocked by what he was overhearing, wrote several things down, one of which has always stuck with me: “If you keep telling people that the sky is green after awhile they’re going to begin to believe you,” the reporter casually said.
Objective truths are hard to come by. Philosophers have spent centuries debating the idea of “truth.” But what happens to a society that cannot agree upon a shared set of facts? A recent New York Times article by Andrew Higgins, The Art of the Lie? The Bigger the Better, gives an excellent summary on how dictators like Stalin and Hitler understood that it’s not the small lies that matter, it’s the big ones. The article quotes Hitler as stating that people are more apt to believe the “Big Lie” because they might tell small lies in their own lives but it would never occur to them to invent a “colossal untruth.”
While totalitarian societies are compelled to buy into a leader’s alternate reality, a healthy democracy is one that allows for citizens to openly debate ideas and disagree on principles. But at some point, we all have to agree on a shared set of facts. We cannot reinvent reality to serve our purposes. Until proven otherwise, one plus one equals two; the sky is, in fact, not green.
As a performing arts organization, we bring our audiences into fictional, imaginary worlds. During this time of social distancing, we miss being with you in a shared unreality where we can escape our lives for a few hours together. But when the lights come on and the outside doors open, it is essential to the safety of our citizens and our society that we leave fiction behind us and re-enter the world with a greater sense of clarity and purpose.
Last week’s attack on our nation’s capital was a clarion call that we all must be truth-tellers. Whether it’s on social media, Zoom or in-person, we must fact-check ourselves and contradict in others what we know to be untrue or unsupported by evidence. Racism, anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories that turn human beings into enemies to be violently deposed of, are all big lies that must not be allowed to take hold.
We need fiction, but facts matter.