By sheer volume of content, Donald Trump is destined to be the most scrutinized president in U.S. history. Private citizens have more platforms than ever – social media, blogs, etc. – to examine and criticize every one of Trump’s decisions. Meanwhile, news outlets utilize an ever-expanding number of content streams to do the same, and have also become entities that must perpetually push forward journalistic and opinionated articles alike to engage an easily distracted readership. Trump’s already taken up more words and emotions that he deserves, but here we are, entering an era that requires untiring scrutiny, inquiry, and outrage.
This is where the world of nonfiction is imperative. It is our responsibility as citizens to write about, photograph, and record every injustice, every shady and disgusting practice implemented by a scornful administration who mistake violence, fear, and exclusion as greatness. It is our job to be witnesses and fighters, to push back with all our might against violations of human and constitutional rights. Journalism has always been integral to this process, regardless of your political leanings.
Yet, the public’s relationship with writing has rapidly devolved. Where stories were once diligently fact-checked, where once opinions had to be backed by evidence, now we are exposed on a daily basis to news that is intentionally fabricated. Many stories are designed with nothing more in mind than contaminating societal intelligence. This has made it increasingly difficult for the common American to distinguish reliable news.
For those that doubt the extent of this problem, Stanford recently conducted a study of more than 7,800 middle school, high school, and college students and found across age groups students struggle to identify reliable information on the internet. To quote the executive summary:
“Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak…when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped.”
In wake of so much readily available misinformation and flat-out propaganda, fiction becomes the necessary counterbalance to our constant attempt to perceive the world truthfully. The acknowledgement that something is made up from the get-go allows language to influence us in an entirely different way. More plainly, in a post-truth world, we need stories that hold no claim to truth outside of the emotion and empathy they create.
While the direct link between empathy and literature has come into question, there’s no denying that works of fiction have emotional and social value. Whether bringing a voice to underrepresented and persecuted groups or examining broader cultural and societal issues, fiction provides perspective and context to the world we inhabit.
Celeste Ng puts it much more eloquently. In a recent post on LitHub, titled “Giving Thanks is a Political Act,” she explained:
“I’m thankful for my work—that I have had the chance to share my writing with others—and for my readers, who have taken the great risk of stepping into another person’s mind and experience and letting it change them; who have allowed their minds to be open to another point of view, even if only for the space of a book; who have written to me and tweeted at me and whispered in my ear and passed letters to me saying that my book mattered to them, that it made them think differently, that it made them see their mothers or their children or their friends differently, that it spurred them to take action—therapy, reconciliation, attempts at reconnection—in their own lives. The point of writing, and reading, is empathy. It’s something that we’re desperately going to need in this next administration—and beyond. It’s something that every day appears to be eroding around us, thanks to the words of the people now poised to take power. It’s something I’m going to keep working for, and writing about, and I’m thankful to my publishers for making that possible, and to readers for hearing what I have to say.”
As Ng points out, our relationship with literature will be imperative in the years to come. There are more people than ever intentionally skewing facts or directly lying for the sake of making money and causing chaos. Research suggests it’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish fact from falsehood and it probably won’t get easier anytime soon. Perhaps by reading more fiction and immersing ourselves in new perspectives, we can hone our abilities to more precisely separate facts and lies and learn from the emotional lessons that are fostered in the imagination.