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Writing in the Post-Factual World
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Much ado of late in response to one Scottie Nell Hughes, “News” Director of the Tea Party “News” Network: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.” From all the online chatter in response to Hughes’s “jaw-dropping statement,” you’d think that
- this is a new idea;
- Hughes is a force to be reckoned with; and
- reckoning with her word stream is a good way to spend your time.
My responses, in order: it isn’t; she isn’t; it isn’t.
After the election, Ann and I were doing the kind of joking around you do when the world is ending. The search-for-a-way-to-make-the-present-bearable kind of joking. That’s the magical thing about laughter: it can help one gather strength and find community again; it can make what seems certain, pliable and what seems central, peripheral.
For some, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show performed this function on a nightly basis. Plenty of laughing there, for sure. Did you see Stewart last night? my students would ask. (Less so now, with Noah.) And now, after the election, one can even be lectured to by the show’s former host about the hypocrisy of liberals labeling everyone who voted for the president-elect a racist. In a discursive environment where one side contends there are no longer facts, arguing is a fool’s errand; so, too, is arguing with an icon of political comedy, now resting in comfortable retirement, about the significance of the fact that his neighbors think the most pressing problem at present is the prospect of higher insurance premiums. These are not arguments that can be won. 
Our students have long found refuge in the claim that everything is just a matter of opinion, and its corollary, opinions are something everyone has a right to. You can call that stance “post-fact” or “no-fact,” but those labels conceal what’s most important about claims of this kind: they are all founded on ignorance. You can’t argue someone out of a state of ignorance, but we can, as teachers, get our students to write their way out the foggy world of self-stupefaction by getting them to write their way into a world where facts exist and must be contended with.
What Ann and I argue in Habits is that creativity emerges out of deep engagement with facts. There is no way to assign this deep engagement: it emerges when we craft a sequence of assignments that gets students to experience what it feels like to think seriously about issues of genuine import. These experiences aren’t scalable; they arise when, as writers, we come up against a reality that is simultaneously incontrovertible and incomprehensible. When we give our students a chance to have this experience, we create a space where writing ceases to be a mere tool for arguing what one thought all along and becomes, instead, a technology for thinking new thoughts.
In my classes, my students always know what hard facts I’m writing about; I tell them so they will see that writing is so hard because it is always about encountering the limits of your own understanding; it is always about confronting your own ignorance.
Currently, I’m deep into a research project on Abu Ghraib. Here’s a fact I can’t escape:
Nine of the eleven soldiers who were eventually court martialed for abusing Iraqi detainees at the prison in Abu Ghraib were members of the Army reserves. Weekend warriors. One minute you’re a cashier at the local grocery store in Cumberland, Maryland, the next you’re stationed just outside of Baghdad, assisting in the effort to police and control a prison population whose proportions are distressingly amorphous. These reservists didn’t speak Arabic. They claim never to have been taught about the Geneva Conventions. They gave the detainees nicknames. Gomer Pyle. Mr. Burns. Big Bird. Gilligan. The nicknames came from their shared storehouse of cultural references—from what might be called their “collective unconscious” or their “imagined community.” What they shared, the reservists and enlisted alike, was the experience of watching TV.
This last fact interests me. What to make of it? It is incontrovertibly true and, at the same time, incomprehensible. It is, in short, an invitation to write.
 El Burro, who never listens to a word I say, did exactly this. You can read his effort to pin his tail of disapproval on Jon Stewart here.
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