Is doubting the path to finding the "truth"?

maht91's picture

 Is doubting the path to finding the “truth”?

 

 

Writings of literature are often perceived as one of two; “truthful” or “dishonest.” What dictates the truthfulness or untruthfulness of a piece of writing or a form of representing non-fiction is the attitude of the perceiver who often looks at non-fiction through his own, judging lens. However, a balance between believing and doubting is an adequate path to take in the search for truth in a personal film, a written text, or a graphic presentation. Whether you are watching a film or reading a novel, you have to allow yourself to participate in a game known as “the Doubting game and Believing game” proposed by Peter Elbow. In his book “Writing without teachers,” Elbow argues that his goal is “to only make the doubting game more over and grant a legitimacy to the believing game.” He establishes that both the doubting game and the believing game proceed by indirection. The doubting game, nevertheless, seeks truths by looking for error rather that accepting all assertions as true. We have to be actively reading and/or watching any representation of non-fiction and allowing ourselves to be engaged in the doubting and believing game to find the truth.

Is there a right “truth”? Or a universal truth? I often pondered at this question wondering if I would ever be able to call something true or accurate representation of people, events, and places. Oxford Dictionary defines truth as “the quality or state of being true,” factual and accurate. But could not the truth mean one thing for one person and a different thing for another? Does this mean that the truth depends on the perception and attitude of the perceiver? If this is the case, I am going to allow myself to explore the truth by investigating if the visual techniques employed in the documentary The Thin Blue Line by Errol Morris invite the audience to participate in the doubting game in their search of the truth. This will then trigger the question of to what extent taking part in the doubting game presents documentaries as documents of factual information of non-fictional prose.   

By using visual techniques, The Thin blue Line by Errol Morris, a documentary, narrates the investigation of the events of a crime involving the murder of a Dallas police officer.  The camera introduces the audience to Randall Adams, the 28-year old man who is convicted of the murder, and David Harris, the 16-year old boy who has been a prime witness of the murder. Both Adams and Harris are responsible for narrating their own story and their own point of view on the events of the crime. The camera starts with Adams, dressed in a white jumpsuit with his name on it, a very serious facial expression, an upright posture and a constant tone of speaking. The camera then shifts to Harris to reveal this man wearing an orange jumpsuit, older than 16-years old, a smiling face, hand gestures and a playful tone of voice. Those details have with no doubt affected the way I perceived each character and thus the events, which would have been different if I were reading their testimonies out of a report since I would not be involved in this interaction; the interaction between the images and the events.

In the process of watching the documentary, I learned something about both Adams and Harris. First, I sympathized with Adams, though I blamed him initially when all the fingers were pointing at him, but I went back on my decision as I saw more of Harris and Adams. I saw that Harris looks like he has no remorse for anything he has done from his previous crimes, which made me doubt his testimony. Second, during the reenactments of the interrogations, I got more information about the inner thoughts of Adams. For instance, when he refused to take the gun, or refused to sign the paper until he was sure it was what he thought represented the reality of what happened. This showed me that Adams is truthful judging from what I saw. Did I let my emotions participate in the doubting game? Possibly. The camera took us, step by step inside the minds of Adams and Harris as they remembered the events of the crime. Did I believe the testimonies of those two men? Did I consider them authentic? Did I agree that they represented the truth? Well, I found myself participating in both a believing and a doubting game because I was basing some of my decisions on the appearance, tone of voice and attitude of both Adams and Harris to get to the truth about the real murderer.

As the events proceeded, a recurring scene is that of the reenactment of the killing of the police officer. The sound of the gun shooting, the car driving away in the distance, and the police officer falling to the ground, all showing the crime from different angles highlighting the underlying perspectives. The camera moves from this direction to the other in an attempt to paint the crime scene for the audience. Bam, Bam, Bam, the noise of the shooting and the police officer falling to the ground. A man with a bushy hair or a fur jacket around the neck, the audience wonders. Which model was the car? The foggy weather, the dark and the shooting keep playing throughout the film over and over again. Did the overdramatized reenactment of the murder scene made me doubt the legitimacy of the film? Well, I think that in the light of what the documentary was trying to convey, the reenactment enhanced my understanding of what might the events looked like. But, if I am already participating in the doubting game, aren’t the different reenactments constructed from varying witness testimonies? From their reconstructed memories about the events, which are as David Shields suggests “When memory is called to answer, it often answers back with deception” unreliable? This puts me in a position where I am not able to reach the truth. On one hand, the reenactments did enhance my understanding of the events by vividly inviting me to relive the event of the murder. On the other hand, the enactments with the noise, background and talking also function as asking me to not quickly accept what I see since it is reconstructed from memory. Therefore, the visual techniques of the documentary both enhanced and inhibited my search for the truth even though I tried to balance between doubting and believing.

David Harris turned out to be guilty. Pause here. An innocent man, Randal Adams stayed in prison for a crime he did not commit! We have two truths here. First, Adams is innocent for the murdering of the Dallas police officer. Second truth, Adams spent ten years of his life in the prison for a crime he did not commit. Adams testified that he did not commit the crime. Harris blamed Adams. The witnesses doubted what they testified. The female police officer doubted the model of the car she saw. The DA doubted the decision of the court. After The Thin Blue Line was published, it provided us with a different truth than the one that was agreed on at the time the murder was committed. This film gained reliability and credibility because it is a documentary, which according to Oxford Dictionary is defined as “The quality or state of being true,” which is supposed to present factual information. Now people have avoided the doubting game in their search for the truth and delved into the believing game after watching the documentary. Does this mean that the documentary is a reliable source to the truth? I don’t know if I have an answer to this question. Maybe, it could be. But I still hold the belief that truth is not universal and the audience has the chance to interpret what he perceives in his search for the truth. Elbow, nevertheless, asserts that the “believing game helps us find the truth.”

    

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Works cited:

 

1.  Morris, Errol, Dir. The Thin Blue Line. Miramax Films: 1988, DVD.

2.  Elbow, Peter. Writing without teachers. NY: Oxford University Press, 1973. 196. Print.

 

 

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maht91's picture

[REVISED VERSION]   Is

[REVISED VERSION] 

 Is doubting the path to understanding a literary work?

Writings of literature are often perceived as one of two; “truthful” or “dishonest.” In my opinion, I think that the attitude of the perceiver who often looks at a literary work through his own, judging lens can dictate the truthfulness or untruthfulness of a piece of writing or a representation of non-fiction. The perceiver indeed feels entitled to his/her own reality and chooses a spectrum that starts from believing to doubting a work of non-fiction to reach a conclusion or form an understanding. Take for example the documentary film The Thin Blue Line by Errol Morris.  The documentary is a storytelling about the committed crime against a Dallas police officer. The film uses fictional reenactments of the event and real witnesses’ testimonies to represent the reality of the event. The storytelling of the event is constructed from the alteration between doubting and believing testimonies and observations made by different people in order arrive at a truth. This truth will help catch the “bad guy” through the eyes of the jury. The goal of the film is to enhance our understanding of the reality at arriving at a social agreement in regards to making decisions in a law court system.

Whether you are watching a film or reading a novel, you have to allow yourself to participate in a game known as “the Doubting game and Believing game” proposed by Peter Elbow to appreciate the message of the work of literature. In his book “Writing without teachers,” Elbow argues that his goal is “to only make the doubting game more over and grant a legitimacy to the believing game.” He establishes that both the doubting game and the believing game proceed by indirection. The doubting game, nevertheless, seeks truths by looking for error rather that accepting all assertions as true. We have to be actively reading and/or watching any representation of non-fiction and allowing ourselves to be engaged in the doubting and believing game to enhance our understanding of any literary work.

Is there a right “truth”? Or a universal truth? I often pondered at this question wondering if I would ever be able to call something true or accurate representation of people, events, and places. Oxford Dictionary defines truth as “the quality or state of being true,” factual and accurate. I decided to explore this topic further of whether choosing doubting to understand the fictional representation of a non-fictional event is the appropriate approach. Therefore, I posed the question: do the visual techniques employed in the documentary The Thin Blue Line by Errol Morris invite the audience to participate in the doubting game which consequently results in an understanding of how the court system works? This will then trigger the question of to what extent taking part in the doubting game presents documentaries as documents of factual information of non-fictional prose.   

By using visual techniques, The Thin blue Line by Errol Morris, narrates the investigation of the events of a crime involving the murder of a Dallas police officer.  The camera introduces the audience to Randall Adams, the 28-year old man who is convicted of the murder, and David Harris, the 16-year old boy who has been a prime witness of the murder. Both Adams and Harris are responsible for narrating their own stories and their own point of view on the events of the crime. The camera starts with Adams, dressed in a white jumpsuit with his name on it, a very serious facial expression, an upright posture and a constant tone of speaking. The camera then shifts to Harris to reveal this man wearing an orange jumpsuit, older than 16-years old, a smiling face, hand gestures and a playful tone of voice. Those details have without a doubt affected the way I perceived each character and thus the events, which would have been different if I were reading their testimonies out of a report since I would not be involved in this interaction; the interaction between the images and the events.

In the process of watching the documentary, I learned something about both Adams and Harris. First, I sympathized with Adams, though I blamed him initially when all the fingers were pointing at him, but I went back on my decision as I saw more of Harris and Adams. I saw that Harris looks like he has no remorse for anything he has done from his previous crimes, which made me doubt his testimony. Second, during the reenactments of the interrogations, I got more information about the inner thoughts of Adams. For instance, when he refused to take the gun, or refused to sign the paper until he was sure it was what he thought represented the reality of what happened. This showed me that Adams is truthful judging from what I saw. Did I let my emotions participate in the doubting game? The camera took us, step by step inside the minds of Adams and Harris as they remembered the events of the crime. Did I believe the testimonies of those two men? Did I consider them authentic? Did I agree that they represented the truth? Well, I found myself participating in both a believing and a doubting game because I was basing some of my decisions on the appearance, tone of voice and attitude of both Adams and Harris to get to the truth about the real murderer.

As the events proceeded, a recurring scene is that of the reenactment of the killing of the police officer. The sound of the gun shooting, the car driving away in the distance, and the police officer falling to the ground, all showing the crime from different angles highlighting the underlying perspectives. The camera moves from this direction to the other in an attempt to paint the crime scene for the audience. Bam, Bam, Bam, the noise of the shooting and the police officer falling to the ground. A man with a bushy hair or a fur jacket around the neck, the audience wonders. Which model was the car? The foggy weather, the dark and the shooting keep playing throughout the film over and over again. Did the overdramatized reenactment of the murder scene make me doubt the legitimacy of the film? Well, I think that in the light of what the documentary was trying to convey, the reenactment enhanced my understanding of what might the events looked like. But, if I am already participating in the doubting game, aren’t the different reenactments constructed from varying witness testimonies? From their reconstructed memories about the events, which are as David Shields suggests “When memory is called to answer, it often answers back with deception” unreliable? This puts me in a position where I am not able to find the truth through doubting or believing. On one hand, the reenactments did enhance my understanding of the events by vividly inviting me to relive the event of the murder. On the other hand, the enactments with the noise, background and talking also function as asking me to slow down and not quickly accept what I see since it is reconstructed from memory. Therefore, the visual techniques of the documentary both enhanced and inhibited my search for an understanding of what happened even though I tried to balance between doubting and believing.

David Harris turned out to be guilty. An innocent man, Randal Adams stayed in prison for a crime he did not commit! We have two truths here. First, Adams is innocent for the murdering of the Dallas police officer. Second truth, Adams spent ten years of his life in the prison for a crime he did not commit. Adams testified that he did not commit the crime. Harris blamed Adams. The witnesses doubted what they testified. The female police officer doubted the model of the car she saw. The DA doubted the decision of the court. After The Thin Blue Line was published, it provided us with a different understanding than the one that was agreed on at the time the murder was committed. This film gained reliability and credibility because it is a documentary, which according to Oxford Dictionary is defined as “The quality or state of being true,” which is supposed to present factual information. Now people have avoided the doubting game in their search for the truth and delved into the believing game after watching the documentary. Does this mean that the documentary is a reliable source to the truth? But could not the truth mean one thing for one person and a different thing for another? Does this mean that the truth depends on the perception and attitude of the perceiver only? But then, how can one arrive at a broader agreement?

I feel that my focus was initially on understanding who was the killer of the Dallas police officer. But when I thought about applying this film experience to broader social agreement, I found myself thinking beyond the notion of truth. In any court law system, a person has to be set free, and another declared guilty. There has to be broad alternatives of social agreement. Do we all simply agree or disagree? How judgments are then passed, punishments adjudicated? The court law system is not simple. We can’t just all agree or disagree. It is a more complicated issue to answer quickly and briefly. Back to Shields and his argument about memory, it poses the question: how do we pursue the truth at all if our memory is not dependable, but is highly needed during a court law system? In a law court, all what you have to depend on is a storytelling, or an observation someone made, and solve the court case with what you have. There is no easy or fast way of this maze. People are forced to simply agree or disagree but that does not exactly enhance our understanding of the truths or lawsuits that are around us. This does not always get us to the truth as perceived by the person on charge, but it forms a basis for making judgments and passing on punishments. Therefore, I don’t particularly think that truth can become or is an attainable goal.   


Works cited: 

 

1.  Morris, Errol, Dir. The Thin Blue Line. Miramax Films: 1988, DVD.

 

2.  Elbow, Peter. Writing without teachers. NY: Oxford University Press, 1973. 196. Print.

Anne Dalke's picture

Playing the games of doubt and belief

maht91--
what I'm noticing first, of course, is the relationship between the title of your first paper--
"Where do you find the truth?" -- and this one: "Is doubting the path to finding the 'truth'?" Not only does "truth" now appear in "scare quotes" (suggesting that you are now problematizing the concept?), but the new question of this second title is also of course deeply oxymoronic, suggesting that doubt, rather than belief, may be the route to truth. I think that you are going to like Carl Sagan, whose work is upcoming in the course!

But, til we get to his views about the great value of skepticism, in moving forward the work of science...

... let's look a little more deeply @ the claim you make, twice in the essay, that "truth depends on the perception and attitude of the perceiver." This makes me think of platano's claim, in her essay, that "people feel entitled to their own reality." If what "dictates the truthfulness or untruthfulness of non-fiction is the attitude of the perceiver," how can we arrive @ larger social agreements?


For example, in a court of law? Do we all simply agree to disagree? How then are judgments passed, punishments adjudicated? How--in the case Morris highlights--can the innocent be set free? Or how--in the case platano highlights--can racism be addressed?

I like it that you locate your pursuit of these large questions in your reactions to a single film: that gives your project a good focus, and a particularly apt one, since Morris's film relies so heavily on fictional techniques to construct a new truth, as an alternative to the one already decided by a court of law.

You trace the various moments in which you both "believed" and "doubted" what you saw, the artistic and effective ways in which the filmmaker both invited you to trust the story he was telling and (especially w/ those multiple reenactments) asked you to "not quickly accept" what you were seeing. That may be the central act of the skeptical mind: not to leap too quickly to conclusions, but to delay response, to mull...

I end your essay with two questions. The first is to ask you to think some more about the very deep problem Shields raises (which you quote): “When memory is called to answer, it often answers back with deception.” If that's the case, how pursue truth @ all?  My second question is related to this one, and you actually pose it as a question yourself: "Does this mean that the documentary is a reliable source to the truth?" Is truth, in your return to the topic this time, still something fixed and attainable? Or....?

maht91's picture

 Thank you for your response.

 Thank you for your response. I found the questions that you posed very interesting and I thought that I should have spent some time reflecting on the whole question of truth. I found that the word truth is problematic and that I need to figure out another way to address the question of truth and universal truth.

 The plan of revision for this paper will be as follows:

1. change the title to is doubting the way to understanding a literary work?

2. focus on storytelling/observation of the film

3. pose the question if we can ever pursue real truth or reach a definite conclusion?

4. expand on the law court system

5. answer the question: how can we arrive at a larger social agreements?

Thank you for your suggestions and helping me arrive at a different level of exploring the word truth.

 

maht91's picture

 Even with the revisions of

 Even with the revisions of this essay, I found myself confused about what I am trying to say, argue or explore. I tried my best to pose the questions that triggered my thinking, but I am not sure that I organized my thoughts properly to enhance understanding of the underlying notion of truth. 

 

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