In this new era of fake news, “alternative facts,” and government more obsessed with being right than being honest or good, folklorists have a responsibility to be part of the resistance.
We aren’t specialists in facts. We’re specialists in “truth” only insofar as we know well how malleable the idea of truth can be, because all narratives–even the ones crafted without the explicit intent to obfuscate or deceive–are crafted through conscious and unconscious decisions governed by the context of performance.
But we’re specialists in belief, and in tradition, and in the reproduction of culture, and in the understanding that stories–true, false, and somewhere in between–do not exist in vacuums. Fact-checkers can evaluate statements against reliable sources, separating the truthful from the “truthy” from the explicitly false. Folklorists can help by digging into the why: Why do some narratives take root and circulate despite the lack of foundation? What fears or ethics or community loyalties are driving people’s attachment to those narratives? What can we learn–really learn–about people from the stories they’re so eager to believe?
These aren’t only important questions to ask of the Trump sympathizers and the alt-right among us. Fake or distorted news circulate widely on the left, too, and it doesn’t help us to support it. Several speakers at the Women’s March accused Trump of gutting the Office of Congressional Ethics, for example, when Trump actually opposed Congress on that issue–not from a desire to protect the watchdog, but because he claimed Congress should focus its priorities on tax reform and health care, but still. It doesn’t benefit anyone to build straw-man arguments to oppose a demagogue. It discredits the movement and distracts from more-pressing issues.
Take, for example, climate change denial. According to a recent Pew study, most of North America and Western Europe, supposed paragons of white western rationalism, aren’t all that worried about climate change, particularly compared with our extreme fear of ISIS. Countries in South and Central America and in Africa, whom we white Western rationalists tend to dismiss as superstitious and “primitive” in worldview, are far more worried about climate change than we are–and, of course, the science backs them. Facile explanations of white American (and European, and Canadian) dismissal of the threat of climate change, like the idea that we dislike environmental policies because they’re bad for business, are lazy. They imply that people who advocate against policies to limit greenhouse gas emissions do believe in global warming, but choose to disregard that belief in the interest of prioritizing economic growth.
Seriously, guys, climate scientists are predicting that we may be en route to destroying the earth as a habitable planet for human beings.
If you believe the apocalypse is coming, you don’t use the economy as an excuse to look away.
Despite all the evidence supporting the existence of human-created global climate change, enormous numbers of people in our country genuinely don’t believe it’s happening. (Aside: that was a link to a NASA page. If the link breaks, refer to the National Parks Service employees’ rogue twitter account.)
I don’t know why this is. But I think a folklore study could find out. Data sources are out there, in the news, in website comment sections, and on social media. What is the tradition of narrative and belief at play here? In cases of all these spurious stories that circulate, in all cases of belief that seems irrational, that’s the question we need to answer.
- When we understand a narrative tradition, we can, potentially, reframe a counter-narrative that aligns with the epistemology we’re trying to reach.
- Understanding the tradition that undergirds beliefs makes it harder for us to dismiss those beliefs as the irrational, primitive, or sociopathic vagaries of stupid people (cf. “poor, uneducated, rural white people made this happen against their own interests! Why woudl they DO that!?!?”). People generally have good reasons for believing the things they believe. We may not agree with them. We ay have good, vested reasons for wanting to inspire them to change their beliefs. But generally speaking, when one person successfully brow-beats another into changing their worldview, we call that abuse, or slavery, or colonialism, and it’s rarely as successful as it might seem on the surface and it usually ends in revolt from the brow-beaten. I’m not being kumbaya when I say that inspiring a change in worldview must start from a place of mutual respect, no matter how hard that place may be to find.
To bastardized Glassie: our traditions have created this present, and our future, out of our past. Folklorists: we have the tools to figure out why.