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Real Life versus Fiction

"Nothing is so beautiful and wonderful,
    nothing is so continually fresh and surprising,
    so full of sweet and perpetual ecstacy,
as the good.

No desert is so dreary, monotonous, and boring
as evil.

This is the truth about authentic good and evil.

With fictional good and evil it is the other way round.
Fictional good is boring and flat,              
    while fictional evil is varied and intriguing,
        attractive, profound, and full of charm."

Simone Weil
In On Science, Necessity, and the Love of God
Oxford University Press, 1968


And the following:

"Imaginary evil is romantic and varied;
real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring.
Imaginary good is boring;
real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.

Therefore 'imaginative literature' is either boring or immoral (or a mixture of both).
It only escapes from this alternative if in some way it passes over to the side of reality through the power of art
-- and only genius can do that."

Simone Weil
In Gravity and Grace, 1997, page 120.
Tr. Arthur Wills, University of Nebraska Press.


The truth of this goes way beyond the strict meaning of its words, and extends into all the media. Think not only of fantasy; think of every medium which purports to represent life 'as it is': think of news, think of soaps, think of plays, think of the stories we tell one another. Then think of real, everyday living that is never represented but just lived, that affords on-going comfort, satisfaction, creativity and joy. What I find beautiful and interesting there, usually seems boring when mediated to others via symbols of media.

This might be why, for example, it is Dante's Inferno that is popular rather than his Paradiso. It is perhaps why, in Milton's Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, the best lines seem always to be in the mouth of the evil one.

Hey! Weil is so right when it comes to Western society's assumptions about sex, marriage and friendship. Real marriage is full of vitality; media-mediated (!) marriage is boring. The sad thing is that, seeing media-ted life as reality, we unconsciously move our own reality towards it, so that it loses much of its "new, marvelous, intoxicating" character. We no longer look for these and no longer exercise our capacity to generate them.

In similar vein, the words of comedian Billy Connelly (spoken on BBC Radio 4 Desert Island Discs, 2002) stand out:

"Home is where you are allowed not to be funny."

Or some words spoken in Rabindranath Tagore's Chokher Bali

"The heroine of a play is only good on a stage, not in the home."

Facebook thrives on our fascination with evil. Facebook's algorithm to choose what goes into a person's newsfeed (their filter bubble) is designed to find material that will keep them on site longest. It is material that provokes strong reactions that keeps people using the site. "Man's anger" is a strong reaction. "The virality in Facebook is driven by engaging content, and the most engaging content is the stuff that triggers flight-or-fight reflexes. And so the algorithm was tuned in such a way that had the effect of reinforcing hate speech, disinformation and conspiracy theories." [BBC Radio 4, 6th September 2019, "The Political Butterfly Effect Did your holiday photos spread global chaos".] This links with Man's Anger, which discusses how what James meant when he wrote "The anger of man does not work the righteousness of God."

A Psychologist's Understanding

Here is something longer. It was a more lengthy, academic explanation, given by Steven Pinker on BBC R4 The World This Weekend 18 December 2022. I transcribe it word-for-word, starting at 11:16:


That was just some of the good news from this year, and there is more to come. Why does the good news get so easily driven out by the bad? Professor Steven Pinker, amongst other things an experimental cognitive psychologist, thinks he knows.

Steven Pinker:

There are a number of reasons.

[1] One of them is, we have a morbid curiosity about bad news. We consume fictitious bad news in entertainment, in various forms of violent entertainment - war movies, mafia movies, westerns, and Shakespearean tragedies. So it's not surprising that the news media service this need by prioritising the photogenic disasters.

[2] Also a lot of positive developments creep up on us. They consist of improvements in mortality rates and disease, or from pollution, or rates of violence, rates of literacy, rates of extreme poverty, that show a few percentage points a year improvement, which can compound and transform the world by stealth. But there's never a Thursday in October in which it consists of a headline. By its very nature, news, by focusing on events, will tend to prioritise bad developments, just because it is very easy for something catastrophic to happen quickly. Whereas good things aren't built in a day, and they tend to creep up gradually.

[3] There is also, at least in some news outlets, something of a, almost a, moral mandate, to highlight the threats, the dangers. It is seen as more responsible. I had one editor say to me that "Bad news is journalism; Good news is advertising." And there's a feeling that any positive development, kindof like the Soviet Union saying that, over the five year plan is working, and production of pig iron is increasing. And I think there is a certain resistance among journalists to highlighting positive developments. It seems to encourage complacency, to valorize the status quo. [13:16]

Now, of course, there is a counter-argument that it could also encourage fatalism, that, upon hearing only the disasters and being shielded from the improvements, people can say, "Well given all the efforts to make the world a better place, if we are no better off than we were decades ago, why even bother? Why not just enjoy ourselves and 'eat, drink and be merry'?" So that / Nonetheless, that ethic is, I think, present in journalists, together with the general asymmetry that bad things tend to happen suddenly enough to count as news.


You also suggested that some in the (whatever you might call it) in the intellectual class, the creative class have a sort of snobbery about good and bad news, and they see the delivery of bad news as somehow more intellectually satisfying than good news might be.

Steven Pinker:

There is a general negativity bias in human psychology, that we tend to be captivated by warnings and threats. It is sometimes said that pessimists sound like they are trying to help you, optimists sound like they are trying to sell you something.


Right, do those delivering the threats and the challenges can thus seem cleverer perhaps than the one sying "There's good news out there"?

Steven Pinker:

Indeed, and it's often the intellectuals, the critics, the academics, the journalists, who tend to focus on the negative. Partly out of what might be a cynical theory that there is always competition for prestige and status, and moral valuation among elites.

And society has a number of elites. There are the technocrats, who try to deliver clean water through pipes, and there's the politicians, who try to pass legislation, there are the business leaders, there are the religious leaders, the military elites, then there are the academic and the intellectual and journalistic elites. And to criticise the way the country is going, the way the world is going, is a backhanded way of putting down your rivals, the people in charge are /


The ones who are actually making it work.

Steven Pinker:

They are making / Exactly, exactly. That is a cynical view but I think there is an element of truth to it.


Do you think, in some degree, this is something of a rich-world perception?

Steven Pinker:

Indeed. That many of the trends that have to count as progress are increases in the standard of living in poor countries: extreme poverty declining, access to electricity, clean water, increasing infectious disease, mortality decreasing. It's often the / some of the poorer countries who, paradoxically, are more optimatistic, because they see the improvements happening in front of their eyes.


You were pretty early in on talking about what you might call the Bad News Problem. Do you get any sense of change. Or do you think it is hard-wired both into the institutions and the psychologies of the world around us?

Steven Pinker:

"Hard-wired" would be too pessimistic. But it is, I would say / I call it a head-rent??. I think some of the orientation toward data, toward quantitative prediction, toward trends, as opposed to events, images, narratives: there is an awareness among journalists that this is a problem. And a number of websites and journalists who do concentrate on trends.

[AB: But is it only a difference of medium, or is it a difference in content? Use of quantitative data is often for an overview, an attempt at knowledge that applies generally, whereas narratives and images are specific to one situation.]


Professor Steven Pinker. A final bit of wonderful news this year was ...

A Challenge

The tendency of media of all kinds to distort evil into good and good into evil is a challenge to all writers, artists and film producers - and academic researchers. Is this an inescapable characteristic of our lingual capability (on which all media work rests)? I don't believe so. I believe it is a distortion of it, an abnormality, despite being so widespread. I might be wrong (what a sad destiny if so!), but am always looking for the way of escape. If you, reader, are like me, and inclined towards those views of Weil, Connelly and Tagore, then I urge you to join me in seeking a way of escape. How can real-life good come across as intoxicating and wonderful when media-ted?

A Research Programme?: Perhaps university research departments (Media Studies, Literature) would do well to take this up, rather than focusing their attention on media technique or technology?

I have used this idea in my discussion of New View in Theology, especially to discuss problems of Creation-Fall-Redemption frameworks.

This page is offered to God as on-going work. Comments, queries welcome.

Copyright (c) Andrew Basden at all dates below. But you may use this material subject to certain conditions.

Part of his pages, that open up discussion and exploration from a Christian ('xn') perspective. Written on the Amiga with Protext.

Created: ?. Last updated: 7 April 2001. 27 December 2002 the bit of discussion plus words of Billy Connelly. 18 April 2007 sex, marriage, friendship link. 3 February 2008 Tagore. 23 October 2008 Dante+Milton, more on marriage+life, challenge. 20 November 2011 link to nv/cfr.problems. 12 August 2014 .nav, new .end, rid ../. 16 February 2016 found source of "Nothing so beautiful.." quote, and put that one first; rid counter. 22 February 2022 Facebook. 18 December 2022 Steven Pinker on psychology of The Bad News Problem.