Look at this photo. Recognise the subject? Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” is one of the most famous paintings on the planet, so I’d be surprised if your answer was “no”. This is the original, hanging in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. I know that because I took the photo myself, and a quick check online will confirm that is where the painting presently hangs. Fact.
Or is it?
We live in a sophisticated world. Our resources seem infinite, with freedom to gather information from books, magazines, newspapers and TV, or through the worldwide web. You can even speak to someone in person. Like me. I’ve been to the Uffizi Gallery and seen it with my own eyes, so that HAS to be the original fifteenth century painting on display, doesn’t it? But then, what would I know? I could only tell you what I have been told. And that information could have been false. I have no reason to doubt the claims of staff at the Uffizi, but how do we KNOW that what is on display is not a clever fake? Could the original instead be adorning the wall of some private collector, having previously been stolen to order – with the Gallery too embarrassed to admit a deception had taken place?
If that sounds more like a plot for a novel, forgive me. Such ideas are not new, and I have no intention of starting such a project. My point is simply to illustrate that most of us tend to accept what we are told at face value.
Right now, our world is suffering from the ongoing effects of a pandemic. Misinformation is rife, and lives are being lost as a result. Climate change is also a hot topic, with vast numbers of us under threat if our world leaders don’t agree on how to tackle it. But then those leaders are listening to their political advisers as well as to scientists – and again there are huge disagreements over “the facts”.
Here in the UK, many of us have been enjoying a TV drama aptly titled “Line of Duty”. The subject is anti-corruption among police officers, although the developing storyline also implicates political figures. In the real world, as I write this, the media are speculating on the potential fallout for the Prime Minister if he is found to have lied about money spent on his Downing Street apartment. Local elections are imminent, the Electoral Commission are investigating, and we are left in no doubt that there are serious questions to be answered about the PM’s behaviour. Fiction and fact – both painting a picture of lies and misrepresentation.
The BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, today supplied a quote from a former minister once close to Boris Johnson: “The PM treats facts like he treats all his relationships – utterly disposable once inconvenient. It’s all about power. Facts, policies, people – they all get ditched if they get in the way.” It is easy to be cynical about what we read online, or watch on the television news. But when we are asked to elect someone based on the promises they make, we do need to consider whether we are happy to put our livelihoods in their hands. Does it make a difference if we are being lied to?
Politics aside, I believe a little scepticism is a healthy thing. Taking information at face value, on the other hand, can be risky. We’re all in the Gallery. Do we believe our own eyes? Or are we happy to accept what’s in front of us because it LOOKS like the real thing?
To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Happiness is just an illusion caused by the temporary absence of reality.”
Need to know:
I don’t just write fiction.