This morning, much to the surprise of America, I encountered antisocial behavior on the Internet. A friend had posted a story on her Facebook page, and an avalanche of censure (some lighthearted, some grim-fisted) followed. I fear I do not possess the superpowers necessary to correct or even address unkindness on the web, so I’ll zero in on the source of the offense instead. It presents an interesting issue in its own right, one that comes a little close to my belletristic bailiwick.
Perhaps you’ve seen variations on the story before, but it goes (in brief) a little something like this. Tyrannical philosophy professor denies the existence of God vehemently all semester long, double-dog daring his students to repudiate the claim. The students are all suitably and conveniently cowed until the last day of the term, when one bold individual, unconvinced by the proofs the professor has offered, acknowledges that his faith in God persists despite the philosopher’s efforts to erode it. The indignant professor accordingly issues a challenge to omnipotence: if there were a God, he should possess power enough to prevent a piece of chalk–the piece he is about to drop–from shattering when it hits the ground. When he drops the chalk, however, it slips from his hand and, after a series of tumbles, winds up on the floor unbroken. Broken himself by the experience, the professor runs from the room, leaving the student to expand on the lessons thereby learned.
I won’t dwell on the story itself much, since it was the poster’s own conviction–that the story must be true–that invited censure. (Snopes implies that it’s an older bit of weblore, and it certainly reads like a parable.) Sans snopesing, and without any real reference to issues of faith, however, the respondents all mocked the story on narrative grounds. The earliest respondents, some of whom agreed with the original poster concerning the story’s truth, were grateful that they had never encountered a professor like that–his tyranny, to their thinking, was simply unreal. Subsequent respondents riffed on that theme, noting how convenient (and unlikely) it was from a storytelling standpoint that the professor would yield the field to his foe rather than remarking on probability, physics, and the like. Still later respondents refused to accept what struck them as the least likely element of the tale: that an entire class would give another student its rapt attention instead of bolting for the malt shop the moment the professor left. The narrative, in their collective estimation, did not pass muster.
A quick scan of my own media feed this morning suggests that such mistrust is common, that many well-intentioned articles are rejected out of hand because they are founded on anecdotes that do not ring true. They depend on a mode of just-so storytelling, in which the auxiliary characters act in precisely the fashion necessary to drive a message home. The bad customer is publicly shamed and goes away mortified (and the shamer is, for her part, applauded); the inept parent is chastened and amended by a timely admonition in the grocery store or omni-mart; a host of surly rush-hour commuters heads home a little wiser after witnessing the kindness of a child–but not before making a point of pulling the proud parent aside and promising they will pay that kindness forward. As a matter of policy I tend to avoid the anonymous comments appended to such stories, since wallowing in sewage is not a thing I normally like to do on weekends with even-numbered Sundays, but in such cases I seldom need to read more than two or three responses to see that the readers aren’t buying what the teller is selling. The incidents themselves might well be authentic, but the ways in which they have been packaged–ways that yield the pleasures of unequivocal clarity and closure–lack the complexity and contrariness of lived experience.
The life lesson here, I think, is a call to caution when it comes to characterization. One can get away with quite a bit of facile functionalism in the shortest of stories, but the longer a critter lives on the page, the more likely she is to behave in unexpected ways. There is certainly a virtue in driving a moral home, in delivering a sentiment cleanly to readers, but readers conventionally reject messages if they doubt the integrity of the messengers. These days it seems to me better to run the risk of losing what I meant to send than to have my emissaries turned away at the door.