“Acting on the basis of incomplete information, which is then completed through ‘guesswork’ or ‘speculation,’ is a biological necessity.” – Stanislaw Lem

Turn on your TV, or whatever your primary source of news is, and you will find discussion about, “fake news”. The discussion is not about satirical outlets like The Onion, and a more appropriate term may be “propaganda”. Regardless of the semantics, it has become a widespread notion that fake news has led us into a post-truth era. Oxford Dictionary, for what it’s worth, has named “post-truth” the word of the year for 2016. Post-truth meaning that we now live in a time, “in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

The sudden hysteria regarding “Fake News” and the idea that we now live in a “Post-Truth” world is short-sighted and peculiar – I wonder what people concerned about living in a post-truth era thought we were living in before it was declared as such. If we’re now in a post-truth era, was there a truth-era? The short answer is, no.

What this craze has done however, is promote a conversation among some about what “Truth” is and means, mostly with regards to the reporting of the news, but also in a philosophical context. Whenever I begin to consider the meaning of Truth, and its objectivity, I am reminded of a short-story written by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, which explores the idea of Truth in the context of a crime drama. Despite having elements of Japanese culture that are unique, the Jay Rubin translation that I read was compelling and easy to comprehend.

Of course, you might say: “What does a fictional story have to do with objective and fact-based reporting? We face serious threats in the world that need to be reported on objectively, and which are so apparent that a discussion about Truth in the world is frivolous.” So be it, if that is the Truth you hold. The purpose of this essay is not to convince that what you perceive to be true is not so, but that your Truth is not universal.

In a Bamboo Grove (also “In a Grove”) by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

In A Bamboo Grove – Ryunosuke Akutagawa PDF

The short story was first published in January of 1922 in a Japanese periodical.  It revolves around the murder of a samurai, with the reader encountering conflicting reports of what took place, as various characters are questioned by the magistrate.

Primary Characters Secondary Characters
The Bandit,  The Samurai, The Woman The Woodcutter, The Traveling Priest, The Policeman, and The Old Woman

Akutagawa To begin: a woodsman, a priest, and an old woman each take a turn speaking with a local magistrate. This describes the setting around the murder, giving the reader some context to the crime at hand. we learn that a local bandit has been apprehended and is suspected of at least one murder. also that a young samurai and his wife fell in to trouble while traveling: the samurai slain, the woman missing, and the horse stolen by the bandit.

What follows these ancillary accounts is a detailed confession to the murder of the samurai by the bandit. Not lost in translation is the character of the bandit – a remorseless villain with a sinister outlook. The bandit is able to explain away his wickedness, and find humor in his deeds.

The story makes sense to this point, but next we read a confession from the woman who was in the Grove. She also confesses to a murder, and like the bandit, claims to have murdered the samurai, her husband.

Now you might be thinking, if only we could speak to the dead. Surely the third witness will set the story straight. The story next takes a phantasmal turn as we hear the final account of the story from the ghost of the samurai Takehiro through a medium. It is yet another variation, with Takehiro claiming that it was he himself who dealt the fatal blow with a dagger – killing himself after witnessing the bandit rape his wife. A curious detail at the end of his account is the mentioning of footsteps approaching and a hand pulling out the dagger as the samurai was moments from death. It is unclear who the hand belonged to.

This story is purposefully vague and open-ended, and for those who enjoy 1 hour crime dramas may be disappointing by the lack of a resolution to the tale.

Final Thoughts

The wondrous thing about this story is that it falls apart upon close examination. Many details are contradicted by another characters description, even the description of the Samurai and Bandit vary in accounts. On a meta-level, English translations of the story vary, further complicating attempts to corroborate details. Yet, because we are conditioned to find a true narrative in the story, we are willing to fill in gaps and make assumptions based on what fits the ending we determine to be truth. The closer you look into the details of the story, the more you realize how faulty the information is. Remember one of our sources is a medium who is speaking for a dead man.

We are not living in a “post-truth” world, we are living in the same world, but with knowledge that truth is not as objective as we would like it to be. Or, maybe it is better to say that we are not as good as recognizing objective truth as we think. Our own perspectives, like those of the characters in the story, influence our versions of the truth – even when we have the best intentions.

Why is this notion catching hold of the public mind, and garnering attention from the media at-large? Where did this idea of a fact-based, truth-based world come from? Maybe it is the goal of a political system to establish an agreed upon set of facts and truths so that it can better function as a unit. It could be that the threat of a “post-truth” world is that we struggle to find common ground with those who hold different truths than we do. And yet I wonder if this is even possible or desirable. Our republic functions best through discourse and debate, not uniformity of opinion however right that opinion may be.

“The name of the story [In A Bamboo Grove] has become an idiom in Japan, used to signify a situation where no conclusion can be drawn, because evidence is insufficient or contradictory. Similar terms include ‘in the dark’ (闇の中 yami no naka) and ‘in the fog’ (霧の中 kiri no naka).” – wikipedia

There is concern about creating a common set of facts. That we are divided because the country receives information from completely different sources. The problem is that there is no such thing as a common set of facts, and that’s okay. Wanting everyone to see the world exactly as we do, with the same facts and truths, is madness.

Remember that differing opinions to not inherently prohibit discussion and debate, and realize that we are all living “in a bamboo grove.” If we are able to recognize that what we hold to be true and factual, may not be the same in the eyes of others, and admit that we cannot escape our own worldview and biases, we may become more tolerant of worldviews that contrast our own.

The benefit of this phenomenon is that we are become widely aware that our reverence for fact and truth stops when those ideas don’t also appeal to our emotions. Someone who is emotionally committed to view a situation in a certain way will not be swayed by “truth” or “fact”, and will be stubborn to accept the veracity of conflicting information.  Don’t be distraught, use this to your advantage when you find yourself at odds with another’s opinion. And…if nothing else, don’t take my word for it, read the story yourself!

 

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