As accusations and counter-accusations about fake news fly back and forth in current day media, I am reminded of Kurosawa’s classic film Roshomon, which investigated the philosophy of justice. In the plot of that story, various characters provide alternative, self-serving and contradictory versions of the same incident, leaving one to ponder the deep issue of whether anything is really objective. We have to conclude that it is not.
Beyond the Rashomon principle, the way we understand “fake news” goes to how we understand “truth”. Do we regard truth as objective, a matter of fact? Or do we understand that truth always bears the stamp of what is subjective? Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway brought this issue into public awareness when she introduced the phrase “alternative fact” in reference to how many people had attended Trump’s inauguration. Television journalist Chuck Todd confronted her by saying “look, alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.” Conway’s defense of “alternative facts” in Trump’s world was widely mocked, reminding many of us of the ‘doublespeak’ in George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984”.
We do well to bear in mind, in addition, that narrative is always and ever involved in how we apprehend reality. As the Buddhist writer David Loy has said, we are made of stories; when our accounts of the world become different, our world becomes different:
“stories are not just stories. They teach us what is real, what is valuable, and what is possible. Without stories there is no way to engage with the world because there is not world, and no one to engage with it because there is no self.”