Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Fake News in the Seventeenth Century

I just finished reading The World on Paper: The Conceptual and Cognitive Implications of Writing and Reading (Cambridge UP, 1994) by David R. Olson, which I happened on at a library book sale and turns out to be even more interesting than I expected.  It's one of those wide-ranging books that casts light on many matters.  Not only does it address the psychology of reading and writing, it puts them in historical and cross-cultural context, with forays into their relation to modern Western science and art.

So, for example:
[O]nce a representational format had been developed for factual description, as exemplified by Boyle, for example, that form could be exploited for literary purposes.  Jonathan Swift’s A modest proposal gives no indication that it is irony; it adopts all of the features of an honest proposal.  Even more impressive are the imaginative accounts of imaginary voyages such as those of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

Fiction is a new kind of allegorical writing in which literal meanings, that is meanings which normally report truth, are used to report things known to be false.  Medieval allegorical writing, such as Pilgrim’s Progress, made prominent the fact that the writing was allegorical by providing characters with names like Pilgrim and Envy; the story never pretended to be factually true.  Fiction, on the other hand, often pretends to tell the truth.  There is nothing in the fiction to indicate that the account is not factually correct.  Fiction remains allegorical in the sense that the reader comes away thinking he or she has learned something about reality but the reader knows that, counter to its appearance, it is not a factual narrative report.  Consequently, some literary sophistication is required to see truth, now allegorical truth, not factual truth, in fiction; to the uninitiated it appears to be a lie … [229]
Similarly, right into the school years [children] continue to have difficulty understanding irony.  Sarcasm presents less difficulty presumably because it is marked by a strong, sneering intonation.  Sarcasm without intonation is irony.  Children tend to take ironic utterances either as literally true or as lies … To interpret an utterance as ironic requires that the listener or reader grant both that the utterance is not true and that the speaker does not believe it to be true nor want the listener to take it as true and yet that it be taken as informative [252].
As Olson also points out, many adults continue to have difficulty understanding irony.  On reading these passages I thought of the confusion many adults exhibit about satire.  Many people resent it, because they "take ironic utterances either as literally true or as lies."  I think of Harvey Fierstein's grumpy indignation when he learned that the meme he'd posted of Ted Cruz endorsing businesses' right to discriminate on religious grounds was actually satire: "Maybe I'm just tired, but I don't find that kind of crap at all amusing.  These are people's lives and reputations."  I don't believe that he doesn't find such "crap" amusing, as long as it mocks people he wants to see mocked, or that he cares about Cruz' reputation.  (Or was it his own reputation he was worried about, since he's a comic actor and writer revealing that he has no sense of humor?)

I also think of the Clinton Democrats who took an Onion piece at face value, although it was clearly from the Onion and they knew full well that the Onion does satire.  And I think of all the people who have trouble recognizing satire and irony, while fancying that they're smarter than illiterate, ignorant Rethugs.  Learning to recognize irony doesn't come naturally or easily, and Olson goes on to discuss the failure of most schooling to equip students to deal with the complexity of the things they will read -- not just rarefied literary material, but day-to-day stuff.

Not many people had access to the Internet when The World on Paper was published twenty-three years ago, and far from hampering literacy the Internet has made tougher demands on readers' abilities to make sense of what they read.  Much of the fuss over "fake news" springs from confusion about the different kinds of text and video purporting to be news that people will encounter: there's satire like the Onion, which imitates the format of print and TV news for pointedly humorous purposes, there's fraudulent material like the dishonestly-edited videos put by organizations like Breitbart, and there's supposedly real news by respectable institutions like the New York Times or CNN that ranges from the honestly erroneous to the disingenuous to fraudulent stories like Judith Miller's articles that laundered Bush-regime propaganda about Iraq into news (or "news"), which might just as well have come from Breitbart.  And more, none of it really new.  So it's hardly surprising that most people, whose education in literacy was intended to prepare them to read newspapers, fill out forms, and follow recipes, not to to evaluate what they read, have trouble applying their skills in the stormy media seas.