In her very recent book (May 2017), The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time, and in an on-line interview with Poynter, Brooke Gladstone of NPR’s On the Media says, “facts, even a lot of facts, do not constitute reality. Reality is what forms after we filter, arrange, and prioritize those facts and marinate them in our values and tradition.” She says that this doesn’t change the role of journalists to fact-check, because facts are key components of truth. But, she continues, there is a difference between the things we can fact-check and the broader context that is largely unseen. We have “facts,” and we have “truth.” Facts are easier, but truth is a bigger story and often more important. Journalists should be concerned with presenting both of them.
While this piece is interesting and cogent as related to the work of journalists and the importance of citizens paying attention to the “contexts” of reported facts, Gladstone’s idea of “reality” and its relationship to “facts” leaves out another very important consideration, which admittedly may be beyond the scope of journalism but which is critical in understanding the current societal malaise in the United States.
A significant factor in a person’s “understanding” reality involves that person’s emotionality, i.e. his/her instinctual emotional orientation, the degree to which one is self-defined rather than defined by others, and the degree of anxiety he/she is experiencing. And to understand the reality of a society we should consider, together with a society’s political and social realities, its collective emotional orientation.
Today we are living in a period of societal regression in which heightened anxiety leads most people toward a reactivity (rather than thoughtfulness) that includes herding (togetherness as the highest value and seeking safety rather than adventure), scapegoating (blame displacement), and a quick-fix mentality (low threshold for pain and seeking quick, simple answers). Simply “contextualizing facts” will not make much difference for people who are unaware of the deep roots of their emotions and the degree to which their inherited and learned instincts influence their thinking and behavior.
And how might we get in touch with those deep roots of our emotional responses? For us as individuals it’s back to family, nuclear and extended, favored or not, and so to the relationships that formed us. It takes time and persistence and, more often than not, a coach or guide. As a society we should seek to understand the emotional heritage of founding leaders and a society’s early social and political influences.
“What is truth?” you ask. It’s even more complicated than you think.