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On Covert Subjectivity: The Truth Contains Multitudes

Modified from flickr/ Pedro Ribeiro Simões

With the right pair of shoes, a girl can conquer the world, I write on the board. It’s 8 a.m., and my upper division Critical Thinking class is sleepily shuffling through the door.

I write: Stalin was more brutal than Hitler.

I write: 10,293 tons of printer ink makes its way to the ocean each year.

I write:  Barack Obama was born in the United States.

They look at me with their half-moon eyelids, heavily. They have likely scrolled through dozens of status updates, tweets, and headlines by the time I am on the road to school with my travel mug of coffee. They know more about a constructed world than I do, and we both know it.

Once the students have all arrived, I have them self-select break-out groups, five in each.

“Now,” I announce grandly, my dry-erase in my left hand, walking to the front of the board like Vanna White. “Which of these are facts, and which are opinions?”

That is the lesson for today: the fundamentals of thinking. Differentiating between when something is opinion (which is overtly subjective) and when something is truth (which is covertly subjective). Once they’ve weighed in on their verdicts (opinion, opinion but easy to substantiate, opinion, fact), we do another round.

“Ok,” I say, “Now, what needs to happen to make these opinions facts?”

We broke it down to it’s cardboard-box basics: in order for an opinion to be a fact, the abstract must become concrete. What does it mean to conquer the world? What if it was universally, specifically defined? Well, then we’d know what it entails, and, under our enterprising capitalism, which shoes to wear while we did our conquering.

Then we do a third round. I give the students context about each of the quotes—information that may compromise their ability to think critically. Suddenly, the oceans affected (even though I made the number up about the printer ink) are very near to our backyard beaches. Suddenly, I reveal that the first statement (roughly) belonged to Marilyn Monroe (“How does it change the meaning to know that the shoes may be stilettos?”). At the end of this exercise, I showed them a video of Mollie Tibbetts’ father, talking about how inappropriately his daughter’s death is being used, to further a racist agenda she didn’t believe in.

“Find the information, find the facts,” I told them, and they set to work. They Googled and scoured social media; they looked at both reliable and unreliable sources using their laptops or their phones. I accepted unreliable information along with reliable, so we could hold each one up to the light and look through it.

A student approached me after class.

“My question is—are there any right answers? At the end of the day, are we all just making decisions based off our core values?” She asked, holding her folder to her chest as if shielding herself from the insult of vagueness.

“You’ve just identified the very crux of this class,” I smiled.

Here are a few facts that help break down the current relevance or irrelevance of facts:

  1. It has, as of last year, been two hundred years since John Keats introduced the idea of negative capability, or the ability to sit with uncertainty, mystery, or doubt without needing to reach for reason or fact.
  2. Last night, my friend Nadia sat across from me, slumped back in her chair after we’d just finished a two-hour go-around about what art is (and is not). “Art just… promotes thinking,” she said, exhausted.
  3. A man in my screenwriting class, who is currently balls-deep in writing a superhero script about an anti-hero superhero who “doesn’t see race,” demanded that I explain to him my two female teenage characters. “Are they gay, or aren’t they?” “They’re teenagers,” I said to him, counting the number of circles in the pegboard behind his head.

Critical thinking, I’m told, is the externalization of the process of thought; it is the consciousness surrounding thinking, which is, or can be, a subconscious process. For example, we can know the following from these pieces of information, from this externalization of my own fact-gathering: negative capability is still in full-force; art is a tool for greater understanding and nothing more/less; and sexuality is more “acceptably” fluid than it used to be.

These are the ‘facts’ I’ve gathered in just the past few days, and they bump up against one another in the darkness of my brain.

Critical thinking, I’m told, is the externalization of the process of thought; it is the consciousness surrounding thinking. Click To Tweet

I am constantly reminding my students that I’m no authority on anything. I’m constantly providing materials that demonstrate that there are only varying degrees of truth and falsehood. It can make a person feel bananas, sometimes, realizing how much of their life they spend talking about the value of not only seeing and navigating gray areas, but also being wholly comfortable with them. That without negative capability, or grayscale, we’d not be able to digest art.

And now, with alternative facts, fake news, and click-bait, we’d not be able to hold our realities and our surrealities in the same hand.

There is value in taking the time to sit back and reflect, be grateful for, hold, how little we know. Or, rather, that the truths we know sometimes go to the mat with one another.

“We live in a post-truth world,” says The Guardian. I disagree. I think we live in a world rife and ripe with a smorgasbord of truths, a world we must show up to with a tool belt of discernment and critical thinking skills. A world that needs a nuanced touch. “Post-truth world” makes me think too much about my twelfth grade English teacher (whom I loved like a father), who prepped us for the world by plying us with dystopian literature, and then died a few years before things got truly dystopian.

However, even if we entertain the thought that we do live in a present state of post-truth, what of it? We humans are by definition irreconcilable, full of contradictory definitions of truths, momentary and life-long.

“The terrible thing about the movie Titanic,” a mentor once told me, “is that there’s nothing complicated about it—it’s just fucking sad. You want a true measure of human nature?” he shook his head ruefully, “Watch Clockwork Orange.”

I don’t disagree. Once, while in the middle of a soul-crushing breakup where I lived off tears and Doritos, I found myself sitting in a room with a woman who had a tipped-over pear on the table in front of her. The pear was so lovely, so shapely. I was suddenly overcome with a lust for the woman that was so intense I had to leave immediately. I can be miserable and lustful at the same time. A person can be bludgeoned in the head while Singing in the Rain plays in the background.  

After all, we hold prisms of truth inside us every day. We love art by artists who have done awful things. We are committed to our lives, but dream of uprooting to Fiji. We help a struggling stranger with change, a hand, a coat, but have violent revenge fantasies about the man in the BMW who cut us off on the freeway. We’re not straightforward in our human-ness, ever, and why should we be? That’d be a disservice to the very best things that we contain (which would be multitudes).

Keep being complicated.