The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling

by Ted Chiang

We had such a great discussion on Friday. A friend of mine walked by our table and told me later that he could tell it was a good discussion just from seeing us.

But I had trouble writing about it.

I’ll start with the easier stuff. I think ‘The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling’ is an essential text in a class on linguistics and sci-fi. This story does a better job than I ever could of teaching some important basic lessons in linguistics:

  • Language can and does exist independently of reading and writing.
  • Our metalinguistic knowledge (our conscious awareness of the structure of language) is both enhanced by and contaminated by our literacy.
  • Our confidence in the notion of word—that we know what a word is, that we can count the words in a sentence, etc.—is largely based on arbitrary conventions of writing, and is therefore suspect. If our language didn’t have a written form, we might not have a concept of word.

I try to tell my linguistics students these things, but I know it doesn’t sink in at first. It’s too difficult to dissociate our knowledge of writing from our knowledge of language. As adults at an elite U.S. university, most of us learned to read very young and now spend hours every day consuming and producing text. It feels second nature, almost as natural and organic as speech.

‘The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Fiction’ does what good sci-fi does: it helps us dysrecognize something we take for granted, in this case our literacy. It places us in the mind of Jijingi, a Tiv adolescent in the 1930s who has never seen a book before, and walks us through his process of learning to read and write.

There’s a brilliant segment where Jijingi asks why he has to leave spaces between some ‘clumps of marks,’ and Moseby the missionary tries and epically fails to explain what a word is (pp. 693-694):

  • First Moseby looks up word in his Tiv-English dictionary, but there’s no word for word in Tiv.
  • Then he tries to convince Jijingi that you pause briefly after every word, but this just isn’t true, as Jijingi points out.
  • So Moseby revises and says you could pause after each word, but that doesn’t work either—because you could pause after every syllable, and a word is different from a syllable.
  • Finally Moseby gives up and says ‘Just leave spaces where I leave spaces.’

It’s great. And then Chiang does this:

‘It was only many lessons later that Jijingi finally understood where he should leave spaces, and what Moseby meant when he said ‘word.’ You could not find the place where words began and ended by listening. The sounds a person made while speaking were as smooth and unbroken as the hide of a goat’s leg, but the words were like the bones underneath the meat, and the space between them was the joint where you’d cut if you wanted to separate it into pieces. By leaving spaces when he wrote, Moseby was making visible the bones in what he said.’ (p. 694)

Our literacy—the way we constantly experience language in a form that we can see and touch—misleads us into thinking that words are concrete and tangible. But they’re not. They’re abstract, just as languages are. Which isn’t to say that they’re not real.  

The harder message of this story—but one that’s just as necessary for us to grapple with—is that the truth is also an abstraction, and that our most cherished beliefs and memories are unstable.

This message hit me especially hard this time. The day before our class discussion was sine die, the last day of the Georgia legislative session. Here are some of the things I saw our Assembly do this year:

  • They rejected a bill that would have made health insurance available to people who can’t afford it.
  • They passed a bill that will pay families to take their kids out of public schools.
  • They passed a bill that cancels the next Public Service Commission election, denying us the right to hold elected officials accountable for rising electricity bills.
  • They advanced (but didn’t ultimately pass) bills that would have banned sex ed through grade 5, empowered vigilantes to disenfranchise voters due to clerical errors on their registration, and allowed drivers to run over protestors as long as they could claim they were fleeing from a ‘riot’ (Georgia code defines riot as two or more people acting in a ‘violent and tumultuous manner’).
  • Up until 1am the night before our class, they were considering a bill (which didn’t pass) that would have banned gender-affirming medical care for transgender kids, including kids who’d been on that therapy for years. An opponent said in a floor speech: ‘Know that when you vote, if you push the green button to make this the law in Georgia, you are damaging children.’ And a majority of the senators went ahead and pushed it.

I’m exhausted. I don’t understand how some of these legislators think, how they explain themselves to themselves. And part of me says I don’t need to understand them, that to try to muster empathy for them would itself be wrong. But how can empathy ever be wrong?

So hopefully you see why re-reading ‘The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling’ the next morning kind of messed me up.

The story is easy to read in the sense that Chiang’s prose is simple and straightforward and there’s no violence or apocalypse. But as you progress through this story, you feel your beliefs being destabilized and your confidence being shaken. For me the disruption proceeds like this:

Beginning of story:  literacy = good
Remem and other invasive technology = bad
Erica the corporate hack = bad
cool journalist challenging the corporate hack = good
colonialism = bad
Moseby the missionary =  nice enough but probably bad
traditional Tiv life = good
treating women as property = bad  (oh wait…)
verbally abusive parent = bad   (oh…)
End of story: telling lies = bad…?
the truth =

Every time I read this story I feel empathy for the narrator, even though I’m horrified by what he said to his daughter and disgusted by his obtuseness. I admire Jijingi’s final decision, even though its implications are terrifying. Jijingi chose to conceal what may have been the truth (what actually happened, mimi) because he was trying to preserve another kind of truth (what’s right for the community, vough).

It seemed like a good thing when Jijingi did it. But how far can you take that logic?

Did those senators who pushed the green button think they were preserving vough?

There’s much more to say about the form of this story, the implications of Remem, whether this is sci fi, and more. Here’s the essay some of you mentioned about telling the story of Hamlet to Tiv people (thanks, Micah!), and here’s a very creepy Guardian story about a new technology that sounds a lot like Chiang’s lifelogs.

Please feel free to comment!

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