What a time to be alive. I break into tears at least once a day, moved either by outrage or awe. I’m horrified by much of what I see, and inspired by the bravery of those standing up to it. I’m worried. I can feel a collective sense of worry growing around me. It’s electric. Our news cycle runs at a pace nearly impossible to keep up with, and the definitions of ‘news’ and ‘article’ are becoming increasingly loose. I recently read a think-piece that was a response to a think-piece someone had written about a Facebook status that referenced an article. I read it a mere 4 hours after that initial article was posted. If the pace is breathtaking, consider, for a moment, the volume of output that pace creates. It is overwhelming.
This past weekend, I participated in the Women’s March on Washington. I witnessed the streets of DC overflowing. I heard the announcement from the organizers changing our route because the numbers were too great for the original plan. I spoke with a number of people who had been there the day before, for the presidential inauguration, who excitedly showed me the spaces and vast expanses that had previously been empty. I marched past stands, iconically empty in the previous day’s news, filled with pink hats and signs of outrage, humour, and hope. We were part of something big and bold and important.
But when my fellow Canadian marchers and I gathered around CNN that evening, the news cycle had already moved on. Now they were covering the initial shock that the White House’s new inhabitants had blatantly lied to the public. Their claim: the attendance at the inauguration was the largest in history. The numbers they cited inferred that there were twice as many people at the inauguration as there were at the march. And my version of reality—my truth—was not the one being represented. When questioned, a White House representative referred to these lies as “alternative facts”. With a straight face. As comical as it was, she was changing the narrative. Which, granted, has been the way of the Politician and the Publicist for decades. But this time, a line was crossed. If the current White House administration was erasing the notion of a lie, what does that now mean for the notion of truth? Where does building a narrative end and propaganda begin?
It has long been said that identity is a construction. Our choice of wardrobe, hairstyle, brand allegiance, and the way one orders a coffee at Starbucks (if one would even be seen at Starbucks) are decisions that effect what of us is seen, and how it will be interpreted. The rise of social media has extended this process further, creating an opportunity to build not only an identity, but an audience, for an ongoing performance. We are curating our identities. In the art world, the role of the curator is one of massive responsibility. Not only do curators make decisions about what should be seen, but they interpret and provide context for that work. Inherently their job is one of omission, which carries a great deal of power, and a platform with which to silence.
And now, we the people are being offered this role, and the power that comes with it. And it’s not just our own identities for which we are responsible—it is the truth itself. The Oxford Word of the Year in 2016 was “post-truth”, and with the declaration of “alternative facts” on January 21st, we’ve reached a tipping point. An invitation. Truth is now a choice. One can take or leave the facts before them in favour of something more appealing. Cognitive dissonance in hyperdrive. The news as artform. We have been on this path a while now. We watch the news station that tells us what we already believe, and mock the ones that don’t. There’s been a decentralization of media, with news outlets multiplying and specializing, curating specifically to the tastes and truths of their intended audience. Even an earnest desire to ‘stay open’ to alternative viewpoints can prove difficult, because the algorithms on social media and search engines are designed to give us exactly what we want.
Is this what democracy looks like? A world in which each individual controls the narrative of the world at large? A kind of Sim City life where nothing is totally real, and none of it can be taken quite seriously? Perhaps this is empowering, but I find it frightening. As the person once laughed out of an ironic game of Perfect Wedding because I demanded we adhere to the rules, I find myself deeply unsettled. I’m not ready for this responsibility. And I don’t trust most of the population to use this power wisely. This has been my battle, my obsession, for the past seven days.
Having no expertise other than my own lived experience, I am reluctant to give advice on what to do about all this. But I will share my plan, moving forward: to practice radical curiosity. I will curate my truth based on that sole criterion. I will remain curious about the people I disagree with, about the research supporting the ideas I already believe in, and about both the problems being presented, and their proposed solutions. A scientist dissecting the human experience, I will endeavor to uncover the ‘why’ behind every post and piece of clickbait. This moment in history offers us access and opportunity to delve into the realities of other human beings, and I plan to indulge. What I believe is no longer the point. Now is the time to shift away from a place of ego, creating space in which whispers of truth can emerge.
But perhaps most importantly, I will never believe that I have access to, or have uncovered, an ultimate Truth. About this, I must be vigilant. I will work to accept the discomfort of uncertainty, trusting that my curiosity will draw me ever closer. It is only through this lens that I believe myself capable of the stamina and fortitude necessary to remain engaged, rather than shut down in the years to come. And that, I think, is our greatest responsibility.
Briana Brown is a graduate of UBC’s Creative Writing program, the Thousand Island Playhouse’s Playwright’s Unit, the Stratford Festival’s Playwrights Retreat, and a previous Playwright in Residence with Driftwood Theatre. Her first full length play, The Concessions (Touchstone/Firehall/Playwrights Theatre Centre), premiered in June 2014 and earned a Jessie nomination for Outstanding Original Play, among others. Her comic one-acts, Cassandra and Almost, Again have had fringe and festival productions across Canada, and are both available in anthologies from Signature Editions. Also a theatre director, select credits include the world premieres of Salt (Lark & Whimsy) and The Way Back to Thursday (Theatre Passe Muraille), as well as the direction of her short play Wait (part of TheatreSKAM’s Skampede in Victoria, BC). This fall she was shortlisted for the Stage West Pechet Family Comedy Award and is currently developing a one-hour serialized drama with Rebecca Hales called Harbinger.