One City

One City

Truth and Reality

For the last few years I have been producing reality television shows, an interesting crossroads of storytelling, documentary, and mockumentary. A key component of all of these shows is the interview.  Part confessional, part narrative device, partly real and partly scripted, the interview is the place where the real people playing themselves gets to clarify the inner monologue of the character they think they are portraying.  In other words, the interview is where they get to tell you what REALLY happened, at least from the perspective of the role they think they play on the show.

Over the last few years I’ve conducted hundreds of these interviews over hundreds of hours, and one thing is clear – no two people ever remember an event happening the same way, no matter how quickly you interview them after the event occurs.  People will disagree on everything from the time of day an event occurred, to the color of their friend’s shirt, to the most basic components of a conversation.  Because I conduct the interviews based on a filmed version of the events (aka evidence) part of my job is to let the cast disagree about the essentials of the scene to counterpoint what the viewer sees “really” happening.  However, sometimes I need a cast member to talk me through the events in a way that jibes with the filmed version, and it is amazing how infrequently anyone can remember the “accurate” version of events.  I usually have to coach them through with gentle suggestions to get the play-by-play we need for the edit.
I also have found that after a certain period of time has elapsed, usually a few weeks, the more likely it is that the various cast members will have the same memory.  This is the direct result of memory contamination in the form of shared discussion about an event.  The more time that elapses, the more the memory becomes a shared or communal memory, rather than an individual memory.   Influenced by other versions of the story, their own desire to be the hero of the story, and the biological limits of the human brain, the memory becomes tainted.
Whether applied to the mundane events of a reality show, or the stories that lead a nation into war, the simple truth is that there is no simple truth.  There is no cross-roads where your truth intersects with mine. We may come to agree on a truth because of a need to belong to a group, or a desire to avoid conflict, or apathy, but this “communally shared truth” is nothing but another story we tell ourselves.  All truth is filtered through the swamp of heredity, biology, personal and cultural mythology, time and distance. We might use words that seem to agree with each other, but there is simply no way that I can ever directly experience what you perceive as truth.  So if a shared truth does not exist, where does that leave us when trying to agree on what reality really is?
I did not expect that working on reality television shows would bring me to this philosophical conundrum, but it has.  As I have deepened my explorations of my own mind and Buddhism over the last year, I have started to understand that truth is that which exists in the present moment, and everything else is a post-truth labeling of that moment with varying degrees of accuracy.
If all of these “contaminants” of truth (heredity, biology, mythology, time and distance) are “me-centered” experiences – i.e. there is an “I” who experiences truth which is then subject to these contaminants as I experience them – then it stands to reason that truth is something that exists separate from “I”.   This is not meant as an argument for moral relativism, where everything is okay because nothing is real.  On the contrary, the more I explore this idea the more I desire to move my own personal lower-case-t truth into the world of the upper-case-T Truth.  In my fleeting, tantalizing glimpses of upper-case-T Truth, “I” shut up for a second (If I’m lucky) and stop telling myself stories, making plans, building defenses, and otherwise doing all the mental backflips that I do 99.9999% of the time, all of which I am doing to prove to myself that I still exist.
In those fleeting moments of capital-T Truth, I see that we do in fact share a communal Truth that is separate and distinct from biology, heredity, mythology, time and distance. In those moments, devoid of storytelling, my existence is not dependent on “me” being separate from everything else.  I exist because everything else exists.  And though the stories I tell myelf about who I am may be interesting – and even essential to making me “me” – ultimately they are beliefs, not truths, and should be subject to the same rigorous examination that my cast members sit through when I interview them.

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posted August 28, 2008 at 6:05 pm

What an interesting post! These are important concepts, ones I’m sure most of us think about a lot. I find myself in the same kind of struggle you are describing on a regular basis, trying to sort out the difference between my truth and Truth, not ever being sure how to do that or whether there is always a difference. Intuition plays an important part in that process, along with avoiding the “mental backflips” that you describe.
I also interview people for a living, though it’s a different kind of interviewing. In oral history, the goal is to get each person’s lower-t truth about what happened. The interviewer’s job is to get each person to describe that truth in as much detail as possible. Subjectivity is important. It’s what we want. It’s always fascinating to see how those stories converge and diverge, especially decades after the fact.

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Greg Zwahlen

posted August 29, 2008 at 9:29 am

This is very interesting Jerry. Little wonder that eyewitnesses are so unreliable, and scary that so many people go to jail based on such testimony.
I think we just need to tape everything that happens in our lives. Actually, given the increases in computer memory and shrinking of camera sizes, I wouldn’t be surprised if people start doing that.

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posted August 29, 2008 at 10:42 am

Menagerist: Yes I agree, intuition plays a huge part in sorting out truth vs fact. But then the question of intuition itself – where does this come from? We talked one night at IDP about that little voice when you are meditating that says “hey you drifted off, come back to the breath” – that whole question of who drifted off, and who was watching, and who is behind that voice – it almost gets schizophrenic! All these voices in my head…
Greg Zwahlen : I sure hope we don’t start recording everything. I love the messiness of memory.

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posted August 29, 2008 at 12:14 pm

I don’t know where intuition comes from, and wish I did. Anyone have an idea about that?

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