The lies we tell
It seems that everyone is at it. Politicians, churches, history books. They are all lying to us.
Harsh? Probably? True? Maybe.
The Oxford English Dictionary (still my favourite) defines a lie as ‘an intentionally false statement.’
Just this week, we had the ‘president-elect’ of the US tweeting this:
Was his claim intentional? Unless the proverbial monkeys got loose on an infinite number of typewriters and happened to post only this from his Twitter account, I’d say it was intentional.
Was it false? Ah, well there it gets a little trickier, but not much. What is false? OED again: ‘Not according with truth or fact; incorrect.’ His statement does not accord with any facts that he has presented. In the absence of any facts, I’m going to go with it being false. I may yet be proven wrong, but only by facts, not wild assertions.
So intentionally and false = lie.
Saying, as we hear so often now, that we are living in a post-truth age, does not make it all right. Saying it again and again just starts to normalise something which we should never accept. We look back at history and shake our heads, saying how could they have been so stupid/naive/deluded/credulous/whatever. But are future generations going to look back at us and think, when did they decide that the facts stopped mattering?
Last week, we celebrated Thanksgiving. The great thing about having a half-Scottish, half-American, German-speaking family is we get to celebrate EVERYTHING! Christmas on the 24th and 25th of December, Santa Claus on the night of the 24th and Nikolaus on the 6th and the Easter Bunny always shows up on cue – the list goes on.
We probably think we know, at least roughly, the Thanksgiving story, but here’s the summary from the History Channel’s website (I think we are all aware of the danger of getting information from the internet and of the importance of using trusted sources):
“In November 1621, after the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest proved successful, Governor William Bradford organized a celebratory feast and invited a group of the fledgling colony’s Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit. Now remembered as American’s “first Thanksgiving”—although the Pilgrims themselves may not have used the term at the time—the festival lasted for three days. While no record exists of the historic banquet’s exact menu, the Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow wrote in his journal that Governor Bradford sent four men on a “fowling” mission in preparation for the event, and that the Wampanoag guests arrived bearing five deer. Historians have suggested that many of the dishes were likely prepared using traditional Native American spices and cooking methods.”
Lovely. Nice story. But is it true? Or is it more akin to the Easter Bunny version of history?
Let’s see what the Huffington Post (also credible source, I think) has to say:
“The idea of the American Thanksgiving feast is a fairly recent fiction. The idyllic partnership of 17th Century European Pilgrims and New England Indians sharing a celebratory meal appears to be less than 120 years-old. And it was only after the First World War that a version of such a Puritan-Indian partnership took hold in elementary schools across the American landscape. We can thank the invention of textbooks and their mass purchase by public schools for embedding this “Thanksgiving” image in our modern minds. It was, of course, a complete invention, a cleverly created slice of cultural propaganda, just another in a long line of inspired nationalistic myths.
“The first Thanksgiving Day did occur in the year 1637, but it was nothing like our Thanksgiving today. On that day the Massachusetts Colony Governor, John Winthrop, proclaimed such a “Thanksgiving” to celebrate the safe return of a band of heavily armed hunters, all colonial volunteers. They had just returned from their journey to what is now Mystic, Connecticut where they massacred 700 Pequot Indians. Seven hundred Indians – men, women and children – all murdered.”
Right. Hang on. Was it 1621 or 1637? And are we remembering a generosity of spirit or inadvertently celebrating a massacre?
So now I am stuck. There are two, apparently conflicting, stories of the origins of Thanksgiving. Perhaps the ‘truth’ is that both of them are accurate, but unrelated, episodes in American history. I honestly don’t know now. It should not be that difficult to establish the relationship between these two accounts and the celebration we now know as Thanksgiving. But in the age of the internet, while we have vast quantities of data, finding what is true and what is false is not always easy.
If we look beyond the more obvious lies and deliberate distortions and can accept that in many cases there are different perspectives and that there is some merit to most of them, one of the problems we encounter today is shown in my opening paragraph above. Admit it, you thought I was going off on a rant, didn’t you? Our starting point is starting to become that someone is lying to us. Not making a genuine mistake, not offering a different point of view, just lying. And it’s hard for us to listen when we are shouting so loudly about how we are right (cue any number of clips of politicians ‘discussing’ a topic). So how do we try to avoid falling into that all so easy trap?
I’ll come back to that next week.