Not Truth is Stranger than Fiction

Starting with Nathan Jurgenson, founder of Real Life Magazine:

On the right, they have what Stephan Colbert called “truthiness,” which we might define as ignoring facts in the name of some larger truth. The facts of Obama’s birthplace mattered less for them than their own racist “truth” of white superiority. Perhaps we need to start articulating a left-wing version of truthiness: let’s call it “factiness.” Factiness is the taste for the feel and aesthetic of “facts,” often at the expense of missing the truth. From silly self-help-y TED talks to bad NPR-style neuroscience science updates to wrapping ourselves in the misleading scientisim of Fivethirtyeight statistics, factiness is obsessing over and covering ourselves in fact after fact while still missing bigger truths.

For the last 18 months I *obsessively* followed the contours of this election, most heavily leaning on Fivethirtyeight but making journalists for the Washington Post, the Guardian, CBS News and the New York Times daily staples of my media consumption diet.  I did this at the detriment of valuable relationships and opportunities, my rationale being that Donald Trump could certainly not be elected President but maybe he could so this was necessary.  I was prepared with copious information, prepared to make a prognostication yesterday, prepared to watch in shock and horror as the armor of my quasi-feelgood factiness shattered, unable to offer anything beyond this is not supposed to be happening.

There was a 2015 ThinkProgress article by Judd Legum done up in a clickbait style using Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (specifically an essay about professional wrestling) to explain Donald Trump.  The piece was well-intended and an appreciated nod to philosophy, but it missed the central point of Barthes’ argument:  wrestling was symbolic of as authentic a communication as possible because all parties involved (wrestlers, referee, promotors, audience) know it is an act and react according to the accepted means of the environment.  The Barthes comparison got clicks but failed to move people in a positive direction; in fact it probably did the opposite for two reasons — it exists with a tacit comparison of Trump supporters to stereotypical wrestling fans, and continues to put weight in the overwhelming lies in Trump’s history and discourse.  Here are the contradictions — Donald Trump is a liar but has higher ‘trust’ favorability than Hillary Clinton — and the ThinkProgress crowd continues to assume it will be victorious because it is in the Right.  Barthes’ argument is not about the reality of professional wrestling or the veracity of Donald Trump’s claims, but about how it does not pretend to be something it is not.  The highly crafted and well-engineered talking points and sound bites and campaign mechanisms of modern politicking (from 1984’s Morning in America to 1992’s A Place Called Hope to 2008’s The Audacity of Hope to today) evoke messages and move focus group index needles and determine campaign stops and ad buys and surrogate spin on news channels.  It is also complete nonsense.

This is why the left rolls eyes and shakes heads at Make America Great Again; it is verbal kitsch, the only reason we did not do the same about Stronger Together was that we agreed with that forced emotive because we agreed with her, or at least enough of what she or the left stood for.  The difference in the 2016 campaign is that Stronger Together was the foundation from which communication and campaign decisions developed, while Make America Great Again was the refrain to return the candidate to ‘the message,’ when in fact the message was (by design or by *authenticity*) woefully underdeveloped and full of innuendo.  An election about dissatisfaction with politics, lies and broken promises had one candidate spout endless lies in a communication style understood as authentic because it rejected the highly designed system, while the other shared policies within that previously accepted structure.

America just elected a man as President for whom the Huffington Post accurately suffixed all articles with the following:

Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, birther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.

This is an epic failure.  I want to find simple reasons or silver linings or anything to wrap my head around this and I cannot.  I look at my field, academic innovation, and I notice of the top 20 Innovation Hubs in America, 19 were in counties which voted Democrat (and in most cases, overwhelmingly – the outlier is Provo, UT).   I spend my scholarship time telling people innovation is not a neutral benevolence promising hope, that such thinking makes the idea a siren’s call of easy potential and a better tomorrow without the pain of the work to be done today.  I’ve been charting data on the growth of innovation in conjunction with the erosion of those places not fortunate enough to be innovation hubs; it’s too soon to see whether the relationship is causal or correlational.  I assume correlational, which is just as important as causal because in society it’s less about the event and more about the results of the event.  Correlational allows a focus away from products and patents for innovation sector growth, and instead on *innovation bycatch* such as the African-American and Latino populations forced to the margins or even out of the hubs of growth.

The question in education circles will be simple – what do we do as educators?  What we mean by that will be different (how do we handle the immediate aftermath, how do we reconcile the divides evident in our society, how do we do better so that we don’t make this kind of mistake again).  What we cannot do is double down on the metrics and objectives and rubrics that have supplemented education to the point we’ve pulled the meal off the table.

It’s easy to get caught up in learning management system versioning or Quality Matters or flipped classrooms or other fad tech or pedagogy.  It’s easy to focus on the procedures rather than the purpose, because it’s easier to identify the takeaways and report back.  But what are we really doing when we compartmentalize our worlds to such a point that our work dedicated to social justice and individual transformation turns into a slide of outcomes at the end of a PowerPoint?  We have created a tech-enabling facsimile of work life which ushers us through socially agreed-upon stressors in solidarity of how tough it is to be an educator today.  The real work left to be done is in creating change, whether that’s in our students or in our institutions or in our communities.


About Rolin
Assistant Professor & Director of EdTech & Media at Seattle Pacific University. Consultant w/ RAM TEC. Work with faculty, teach students, explore non-formal learning spaces (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums)


  1. Hi Rolin,
    the last two paragraphs leave me with lots to mull over and be challenged by but at the risk of introspection I’d note that “The real work left to be done is in creating change, whether that’s in our students or in our institutions or in our communities” may need to begin with change in ourselves.

    I’ve deleted two attempts to expand on what that looks like. At this point I don’t know.

  2. Agreed. In particular, I’ve been thinking about local community blogging and social media as informal continuing education in stealth mode.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.