Does golden-age detective fiction hold the answers to the post-truth crisis?
In this post-truth world, trying to navigate the truth when reading/watching the news is in itself almost as difficult as the work of a detective. Much research has to be done in order to separate fact from fiction, and this is indeed a growing problem in the media – emotions are more important than facts. It is something the right and left are both incredibly guilty of. Just look at the campaigns of the last presidential election candidates. And nobody seems to have learnt any lessons since. Instead, we who care about the actual truth of stories are forced to take upon the role of Sherlock Holmes and ruthlessly scrutinise everything caring only for facts.
This is unfair, of course, as it is the job of the media to do the research and reporting. One might argue that, on the contrary, 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 American Libertarian wunderkind Ben Shapiro, one of my political heroes at the minute. His catchphrase is ‘facts don’t care about your feelings’ and the way he ruthlessly searches for and spreads nothing but the truth through his website The Daily Wire as well as his podcast, is indeed very similar to Holmes. Although I do think that, unlike Holmes, who actually has struggles with any aspect of humanity and only knows facts, Shapiro is a perfectly functioning human being. He merely resembles Holmes (particularly Benedict Cumberbatch’s recent interpretation of Holmes), when he deliberately takes on that role in his approach to truth and its relation to reporting and commentating. But, although I greatly admire Shapiro, I think I disagree with him on certain issues in this area. He said in an interview recently 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 as humans are attracted to narrative, citing our universal love of movies (no nod to any particular studio intended there), as evidence. Now, that’s fair enough, and in the light of post-truth politics and reporting that I criticize, 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 our essential parts of what makes us human, and can’t and shouldn’t be ignored, I would argue.
To illustrate, allow me to return to the golden age of detective fiction, this time to a rather lesser known detective, Father Brown. Father Brown is the invention of novelist 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 and 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 these 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, in my writing. And relating to that, if it wasn’t obvious, Father Brown, who I used to illustrate this point, is a Catholic priest, and Chesterton was himself 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, who, along with Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens has been labelled one of the “four horsemen of the non-apocalypse,” famous critics of all religious belief, has dedicated years of his life to promoting the importance of “spirituality,” whether you are religious or not. A difficult word to define, I would argue that the aspects Chesterton added to Father Brown that aren’t aspects of Sherlock 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 the important parts 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 journalists. media outlets, politicians and advertisers guilty of the post-truth approach, are, I would say, excellent Watsons, in the way they tell their stories, 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!