‘You know my methods, Watson’

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Does classic detective fiction hold the answers to the post-truth crisis?

 

These days, trying to navigate the truth when digesting the news is in itself the work of a detective. Much research has to be done as emotions appear to be more important than facts. It is something the right and left are both incredibly guilty of in recent years and it is increasingly obvious, for example, in the insane differences in the responses to the US election controversy. I had some hope that lessons would have been learnt after 2016, but things have only intensified. Instead, we who care about the actual truth are forced to take upon the role of Sherlock Holmes and ruthlessly scrutinise every story to get to the bottom of it.

 

This is unfair, of course, as it is the job of the media to do the research and reporting. It is they who should be taking upon the role of Holmes, not us. That would solve the problem, would it not? This is the approach taken by many members of what has become known as the “Intellectual Dark Web (IDW),” the group of thinkers and commentators who’s only common interest is dedication to truth.

 

The IDW includes conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, with his catchphrase ‘facts don’t care about your feelings,’ and his claims to search only for the truth in his reporting. I would question this but admit that Shapiro has spoken publicly about needing to work on his own confirmation bias. On the whole, however, he in many ways resembles Sherlock Holmes in his idiosyncratic approach and mannerisms. Take from that what you will, and he is a controversial figure, but I am glad the IDW exists in this crisis, and appreciate people like Shapiro who aren’t afraid to speak their mind.

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However, although I do admire him on some fronts, I think I disagree with Shapiro on certain issues in this area. He once said that he basically finds it morally abhorrent when people try and include emotions in discussions of policy etc. and cynically pointed out that it works so well because we are attracted to narrative, citing our universal love of movies as evidence. Now, that’s fair enough, and in the light of post-truth politics, I think he’s right. But I think he’s wrong to ignore the emotion altogether. And the narrative. The importance that these aspects hold for us are essential parts of what makes us human, and can’t and shouldn’t be ignored, I would argue.

S. Holmes

To illustrate, allow me to return to the world of classic detective fiction, this time to a rather lesser known detective, Father Brown. Father Brown is the invention of GK Chesterton, and was literally written as an anti-Sherlock Holmes. Chesterton believed that human nature, and thus human evil, cannot be understood through reason alone; it requires intuition.  And this is an important aspect in the way Father Brown solves his cases, whilst not ignoring facts. And I sympathise with Chesterton’s argument here. Basic facts are not enough to thoroughly understand humanity, we need to pay attention to narrative, emotion and instinct as well. And this should not be ignored in the media. It’s an essential part, not only of the arts, but of politics and journalism and marketing. And, yes, it’s easy to be cynical about how “life is not like the movies” or “politicians are all liars” or, indeed, the idea of marketing as “legalised lying,” but at the end of the day, this is just not the case. Because that side of things is an important part of why we think the way we think and do the things we do. People will often quote Oscar Wilde and say “Life imitates Art.” But they imitate each other. And, logically, life came first. We aren’t robots and we cannot ignore the importance of our humanity.

 

Now, forgive me for getting all, religious, if you will. And relating to that, if it wasn’t obvious, Father Brown is a Catholic priest, and Chesterton himself was a Christian apologist. So one might point out that it is only through a religious lens that these aspects are important. But I would disagree. These aspects of what make us human are not limited to Christianity, they can be found in the beliefs and metanarratives of all world religions. And, indeed, in the ideas of the irreligious and even the anti-religious. Sam Harris, a noted critic of religion and somebody who has been labelled as a member of the IDW, has dedicated years of his life to promoting the importance of “spirituality,” for atheists. A difficult word to define, I would argue that the aspects Chesterton added to Father Brown that aren’t aspects of Holmes are indeed aspects of the “spiritual” side of humanity.

 

So, am I arguing that the news takes on the persona of Father Brown, a healthy balance of emotion, facts and narrative? I suppose. But I haven’t actually ever read Father Brown, and am told it is really rather dull in comparison to Sherlock Holmes. Perhaps this is because Chesterton never really realised that one of the most brilliant aspects of the Holmes stories is the relationship between Holmes and Watson. Holmes’ ruthless attention to facts and lack of social skills or apparent human nature humorously balances Watson’s brilliant narration and understanding of life that the bohemian Holmes struggles with. Holmes may be the star of the show, but Watson is Conan Doyle’s storyteller. Now, many in the media guilty of the post-truth approach, are, I would say, excellent Watsons, with incredible insights into how we work as people. But the narrative doesn’t work without a balance between this and an accurate representation of fact. To stop this crisis, we need to bring back Holmes!

S Holmes