Facts, Context, Truth and Reconciliation

vicious fighting with a knife and a gun

Not long ago a man wrote to admonish me for referring to some violent acts that men of his ethnicity had committed against another ethnic group. He scolded me because I had not mentioned “the context” within which the acts had been committed. According to him, the acts should never be mentioned without pointing out that the other side had committed similar acts “more often” and “more intense.” He implied that his side was justified in its viciousness, whereas the other side was not. It reminded me of two boys fighting in the school yard. They confuse the meaning of facts, context and truth. And of course, without a measured approach, there is no hope for reconciliation.

Fighting in the School Yard

A teacher hears children yelling. She turns to see a group of young students standing in a ring around two boys who are fighting. The bigger one rears back and punches the smaller boy in the nose. Blood spurts across both their faces. The smaller boy pushes the other boy, and sends him sprawling. He then proceeds to kick him hard in the shoulder, ribs, hip and legs. Just as he is about to jump on his stomach, the bigger boy grabs his ankle and bites down hard. The children are screaming and crying out as the teacher arrives and hauls both boys to their feet. She holds onto their collars and marches them off to the principal’s office.
“You both know better,” she says as she shakes them. “No fighting!”
“He started it!” says one.
“No, he did!” says the other.
“You did!” they both shout at each other.
“Well, you kicked me,” says the big boy.
“You punched harder,” says the little boy. “And more often!”
The teacher shakes them again. “I don’t care who started it. The rule is ‘no fighting’! You were both fighting, and that’s a fact.”

Definitions

To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a fact is a fact is a fact. It is something known to exist or to have happened—in this case, the teacher is correct: The boys were fighting. Period. A fight is a fight is a fight.

The context—the set of circumstances or facts that surround a particular event—are that the fight took place in the school yard, and there were several witnesses, including the teacher, who could testify as to the sequence of events.

But what is the truth? By definition, truth is a conformity with fact or reality. Therefore, it is correct to have several truths regarding the same issue—as long as the truths conform to the facts. The teacher saw vicious behaviour on the part of both boys, so her truth was that both boys were fighting violently. Some of the students actually saw who started the fight, but some arrived only in time to see the second violent act. Depending on where they were standing, they each had a different physical perspective. Each boy brought to the fight a long-standing anti-social relationship with the other, which coloured their viewpoint. In this instance, there could be many truths, all directly conforming to the facts.

Reconciliation is the act of bringing into agreement or harmony, but it’s unlikely the principal will be able to arrange a reconciliation between the boys any time soon, since neither would be willing, at the moment, to own up to his own behaviour or accept responsibility for his own actions. Right now, they are more concerned with blame. Maybe reconciliation will be possible later.

The Truth as We See It

The truth lies (no pun intended) in a collection of facts, which is why gathering of evidence is so important. Evidence includes official and unofficial documents, audio-video recordings, and eye-witness reports from as many sources as possible. That’s because a sole account is not always reliable or verifiable.

Is your truth always the truth? Watch this video and count how many passes of the basketball the white team makes.

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Photo of Robert E. Howard and his friend Truett Vinson, in a pose entitled “Beachcombers’ Argument,” c. 1920.

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