Were They Real? The impossibility of a neutral presentation of information
Elder son’s at it again, trying to determine whether certain people and characters are real or not. This time, he’s been set off by a book he brought home from school, called Were They Real?, which gives potted descriptions of various figures, and then asks the reader to say whether they’re fact or fiction.
He loved the process of discovery, and we talked a lot about the people and where the stories come from. He was particularly intrigued by the page on King Arthur, which slightly hedged its bets by saying that although the stories about him aren’t true, they were probably based on a real warrior king from around that time.
Taking my cue from that, when Robin Hood came up and was described as “not real”, I explained that there were many theories about possible inspirations for the stories, and that they probably originated with a genuine person or people before being augmented, adapted and mythologised into the well-established, almost archetypal stories we know today. Later, I also pointed out that even real people were often associated with events that were exaggerated or occasionally completely made up.
And shortly afterwards, I felt guilty.
It’s not that I think I did anything wrong, but I realise that my actions could be interpreted that way, from a certain perspective. I’ve previously heard comparisons between Jesus and Robin Hood, specifically relating to the nexus between people, the stories that are told about them and the problems of determining what (if anything) has a historical basis. I never mentioned Jesus, but there was a sort of connection in my mind, which made it feel awkward.
I wasn’t trying to make any sort of clever oblique point about religion. I was just discussing his book and some obviously related issues, even observing that supposedly “not real” people could have a basis in reality. And I doubt it will make any difference to his future beliefs, but after The Magic Incident, I’m quite wary of anything that could be interpreted as directing his thinking in any way.
It’s still my intention to allow my boys to make their own decisions, whatever I conclude, but this has shown me both how careful I must be to avoid misinterpretation, and also how easily my preferred factual approach can turn into something that could only be described as covert indoctrination.
Facts may be pretty unremarkable (although they’re rarely quite as settled and uncontroversial as that suggests), but used in the right way, at the right time, they can be every bit as one-sided as any campaign of indoctrination or propaganda. Context is all, and the same discussion could look very different if anything might have caused him to have religion in his thoughts at the time.
I’m feeling a little scared and depressed at how easily I can imagine this sort of situation fuelling arguments and breeding resentment between me and my wife. We’re both trying our best, but sometimes I wonder if that will be good enough.