Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Assault on Credibility

Earlier today I was listening to a Radiolab podcast about War of the Worlds. Aside from the fact that I am a gigantic nerd, this was interesting to me because I am fascinated with issues of deception and belief. So I was interested to learn that, many years after the War of the Worlds radio play aired, Orson Welles admitted that it wasn’t an accident that people took his story of a Martian invasion literally – he had intended to deceive them. “We were fed up with the way in which everything that came over this new magic box, the radio, was being swallowed,” he said. “So in a way our broadcast was an assault on the credibility of that machine.”

As a credulous person, I found that statement kind of devastating. Not because I tend to believe news media, but because I tend to believe individual humans. And when I find that someone has been lying to me, it has the same effect – an assault on credibility.

When I hear about the panic that followed the War of the Worlds broadcast, I don’t laugh at the people who believed that aliens had landed in New Jersey. I think about how, as a child, I would believe similar stories that were told to me by other children. In several incidents spanning from pre-K to middle school, friends told me that they could tell time on invisible watches, that they had seen fairies, that they could access an alternate reality. In sixth grade, one of my friends told me that it had been revealed to her that she was not human. Each of these stories left me in an agony of guilt and confusion. I wanted to live in a world where words had consistent meaning, where people told me the truth, where I never had to doubt my friends. It was becoming apparent to me that I didn’t live in this world, but I didn’t know how to stop believing people.

Actually, I still don’t.

The Orson Welles quote struck a nerve with me today because currently, I’m worried that a friend of mine has been manipulating me. This means that I’ve been thinking a lot about trust and credibility. I’ve also been thinking about Lola.

In high school, I hung out with a group of misfits and nerds, and in my senior year we were joined by a freshman who I’ll call Lola. Lola was often quite friendly, and she was very open about her life. She told us that she had several medical conditions, had been a model, had lived in Japan. She had an abusive ex, a dead ex, had done hard drugs and taken classes at Brown. She was maybe thirteen years old.

She became attached to me, and started dating a friend of mine, who is also disabled. Looking back, I can’t help but feel that she took advantage of our hard-wired tendency to trust. Because even when her stories became started to contradict each other, we didn’t turn away.

I didn’t start to question what Lola told me until we were in the same group on an overnight field trip that my school organized. During the course of this trip, Lola told me so many increasingly implausible horror stories about her life that I found myself in a crisis of faith. I returned from this trip emotionally exhausted and visibly upset. On principle, I believed (and still do) that it’s better to take people at their word when they tell you that they are disabled or have been abused. But I was having difficulty believing the things that Lola told me. I couldn’t figure out if she was telling the truth, and I was an asshole for doubting her, or if she was lying to me and I was stupid for believing her.

I consulted my parents, who told that it made sense to doubt the stories that Lola had told me. As gently as they could, they explained to me that sometimes people lie even about very personal things, and that sometimes it’s okay to disbelieve something that you would normally take seriously. Later that year, one of my friends’ parents called Lola’s parents to express concern about her medical problems. Lola’s parents were flustered and confused – there must have been a mistake, they said. Lola didn’t have those conditions.

My experience with Lola was mild – she didn’t abuse me or trick me into giving her money, and we weren’t even very close friends. But when I remember how she manipulated me, I still feel hurt and confused and ashamed. It’s the feeling of being the only kid who looks at the ceiling when told that the word “gullible” is written there. When the laughter starts, that’s when you learn that people who believe are suckers, dupes, are asking to be hurt.

I’ve written before about how frustrating I find it that jadedness and skepticism are seen as hip and intelligent, and belief – in statements, in people, or in ideals – is seen as uncool and stupid. Obviously I think there’s ableism in this idea, because some disabilities can cause people to be credulous (or as the literature might say, “na├»ve” or “overly trusting”). But it also bothers me because society tends to err on the side of disbelief in cases when I think people should err on the side of belief – such as when someone says they have been sexually assaulted, or talks about experiencing discrimination. Even though I’ve experienced people lying about these things firsthand, I still think it’s much more common for people to tell the truth but be disbelieved. So I get mad when I see media portrayals of people lying about rape or faking disability, because in real life rape survivors and disabled people get accused of faking it all the time, and I don’t think that’s right.

So I’m left in a difficult situation. I’m hard-wired to believe, and ethically I suppose I am pro-belief, but at the same time I know that sometimes people lie and that sometimes believing people means you will be used or hurt. I don’t want to be the cold-hearted skeptic who believes that ADHD was invented by Big Pharma, and I don’t want to be the dupe fleeing the Martian invasion. Is there a middle ground here?

If I figure it out, I’ll be sure to let you know.

1 comment:

  1. I'm really odd with these issues. I'm very skeptical about things like UFOs or ghosts or homeopathy and consider myself a scientific skeptic. But if a person tells me some story about something that happened to them or some factoid I've never heard before, I believe them to the point of gullibility.

    I'm not sure why this discrepancy occurs, but I think it might have to do with the fact that when somebody's telling you something, you have to act on your belief or disbelief right that second, whereas something like UFOs or homeopathy you can do your research on your own time and come to your own conclusions. And it's generally hard to say, "I don't believe you" straight out without seeming rude.

    But that explanation doesn't quite satisfy me. Something's missing. I don't know what. I do know that I absolutely hate it when people prey on my gullibility for their own amusement though.