Living in times where facts are frequently drawn into question, the sense of what’s truthful as opposed to simply compelling or entertaining seems to be under quite considerable pressure. When all is said and done, does it matter what we think?
It’s fairly commonplace to hear that it doesn’t, that culture’s all just stories and what we choose to absorb is a personal prerogative. And that’s the thing: it’s true we can think whatever we choose (see Note One). But surely the question of whether it matters is slightly different, and rather more difficult to answer.
Reality – the past or present – must have a truth to it, however complex and interwoven it all might be. There are clearly almost countless perspectives, interpretations, threads or trends we might choose to prioritise as we look at events from different angles, in the light of how they affect or were affected by different individuals. It’s not really a straightforward narrative, an easy story to tell.
In many ways, time’s this quite thrilling convergence of people, ideas and places as ‘whatever life is’ works itself out. Faced with that, choosing any single storyline is going to offer partial truth at best; far less than the coherent, multifaceted representation that would be ‘truth’. So holding any narrative up against reality can easily lead to pointing out all the things that aren’t being said or acknowledged.
Beyond that, does it matter if we entertain notions of Brad Pitt and Wonder Woman fighting in WW2? Does this re-working or re-casting of history help or hinder us in grasping the truth of things? Might having such pictures in our minds desensitise us to the reality of countless ‘more ordinary’ souls deliberately laying down their lives for their values? (Notes Two)
And, with the representation of modern society, are stories we’re being told and their inferred meanings encouraging us to understand, integrate and move forward? Or are they more often perpetuating stereotypes; feeding on prejudice or insecurity? It’s surely important to ask whether the ideas we’re shown around appearance, race, gender, poverty and so forth are fair or particularly helpful in navigating life (Notes Three).
If we were to view culture as a reflection of reality – a map of sorts for understanding the world we all live within – does the truth of it matter, or can that be swept away and replaced with some other story if we’d rather? Is culture now more about escapism and light relief than some sense of having a shared narrative, common interpretation of meaning, and moral evaluation of social or personal worth (Note Four)?
Modern living seems to value neutrality more: that truth or meaning comes from our interactions, our responses, to all that’s freely on offer. Our ability to think the right thoughts about cultural and social realities, past or present, might then be what truly matters (Note Five). Whether we’re looking at partial truths or re-written ones, keeping in mind how anything relates to reality could be the more important question.
Notes and References:
Note 1: What are we thinking?
Note 2: Meaning in culture
Note 2: History’s role in modern culture
Note 3: Masks we all wear
Note 3: Beauty in unexpected places
Note 4: Plato & “The Republic”
Note 5: What is real?