Are we all guilty of applying an unrealistic believability standard? (Sept. 26)


Once a novelist objected to a literary critic’s “bad habit” of calling story plots unbelievable. If the literary arts are supposed to mirror reality than believability is essential. But the novelist claimed the mirror analogy ignored how readers experience stories in real life.
The novelist explained, we all tell stories, but we don’t tell stories of normal occurrences, we tell stories about events we thought would never happen. And we all begin these stories by saying, “Let me tell you about the other day. You’ll never believe what happened.”
In other words, we hear stories all the time we are not supposed to believe happened, and the reason why the story was told was because it was unbelievable.
The novelist said fiction writers aren’t always trying to mirror reality. Some plots are invented to create a reading experience that mimics the everyday occurrence of hearing the unbelievable story that really happened.
But here’s the problem.
We believe the unbelievable story told by our friends because we know the storyteller. The fiction writer that mimic—the unbelievable story that really happened—doesn’t have that advantage. So, these types of plots, especially crafted by unknown authors, are deemed unrealistic, because critics don’t believe the events reflect everyday life.
Expecting fiction, that depicts an unbelievable reality, to fit neatly into our assumptions of plausibility is unrealistic and fails to understand why stories are told.
But we find this same unrealistic believability factor in the court of public opinion.
Recently, psychologist and professor Christine Blasey Ford has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault. Ford claimed 36 years ago, while both were teenagers, an intoxicated Kavanaugh pinned her down at a party, groped her, tried to pull off her clothes, and covered her mouth to stop her from screaming. The assault ended when Kavanaugh’s friend inadvertently intervened, allowing Ford to escape.
Kavanaugh denied the allegations. Ford’s expected to testify at a Senate hearing, and the court of public opinion went into session.
Now, for partisan reasons, some said if the charges are substantiated it should disqualify Kavanaugh from the Supreme Court, and others stated, even if the charges are true Kavanaugh shouldn’t be punished as an adult for a teenage infraction.
But one talk radio host said the accusations against Kavanaugh should be ignored.
On the radio program a caller asked the host if he was a senator at Ford’s hearing what question would he ask her. The host replied, Dr. Ford, in light of the fact, not one other woman in America has come forward to say anything negative regarding Judge Kavanaugh, in light of the fact 65 women who have worked with him vouched for his character, along with a high school and college girlfriend, why should we believe you?
Then the host asked his radio audience if they knew of any case involving male public figures where there was only one accusation, and if there is only one, people will correctly assume it’s odd because nobody limits sexual deviance to one time.
Here, the inability to grant the benefit of the doubt creates the unrealistic believability factor. The host refused to believe Ford’s story because it doesn’t fit the pattern of behavior displayed by others in the past. It’s faulty to assume past patterns will always be displayed, especially when someone is telling an unbelievable event that really happened. (Days later another woman came forward claiming Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in college.) The problem with the court of public opinion is that it doesn’t have jurors, it has nothing but judges.
(J. Pharaoh Doss is a contributor to the New Pittsburgh Courier.)
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