Everybody plays the fool ... sometime. Last week was my turn. I ran what I thought was a very dramatic tsunami photo from the Internet with an article about a disaster relief effort by an ex-Oak Parker in Indonesia [The village trustee, the explorer, and the tsunami, p. 19].
If nothing else, it showed how many people read this newspaper on Wednesday morning, judging by the numerous e-mails informing me the photo was a hoax. It had already been exposed on websites that apparently exist just for the purpose of debunking con artists.
Most of those who contacted me were nice about it, helpfully supplying the hoax-buster websites: www.snopes.com/photo/tsunami/tsunami2.asp and urbanlegends.about.com. Only one person said, "shame on you for perpetuating a hoax." Some people, I've noticed, are big on shame. As soon as they spot something that isn't quite right, they start shaming. There are plenty of big things worthy of shame?#34;our government's decision to invade Iraq, for instance. But the small stuff is usually the result of sincere incompetence.
The photo looked plausible. You might say it swept me away. I should have known better.
Sadly, we have entered a period of such technological proficiency that you can no longer afford to believe your own eyes. And it will only get worse.
We're forced to wear the protective armor of skepticism, which should always be part of the journalist's uniform, but sometimes naivete leaks through. Deep down, we all want to believe. It's inhuman to be skeptical all the time. It isn't always a sign of weakness to be credulous.
To believe is to expose yourself?#34;to being proven wrong, even to being made a fool. The one thing none of us ever wants to be is a fool.
Yet belief itself, when it becomes too rigid, can turn into a fortress we hide behind, afraid that if we expose ourselves to another point of view, we might be fooled, seduced, converted. We deflect dialogue with our shields of belief.
When you're fooled, your intelligence is called into question. But I've been around long enough now to know that I'm an intelligent person who happens to be prone to mistakes. Occasionally, they rear up from whatever supposedly secure memory bank I had banished them to and torture me until I can push them back into the closet. Some days they all get loose at once and make me bleed.
They are my antidote to arrogance. Mistakes keep you humble. That's good, as long as it doesn't disable your self-esteem. Some people think I'm arrogant because a) they don't agree with me and b) I express my opinions with authority.
There's a difference between authority and certainty. Rarely am I absolutely certain about anything. It has only happened once. But when I'm reasonably certain, I say it forcefully.
Of course, I could always be wrong.
Ray Bradbury wrote: "The first thing you learn in life is you're a fool. The last thing you learn is you're the same fool. Sometimes I think I understand everything. Then I regain consciousness."
We're all fooled more often than we like to admit?#34;by politicians, advertising, media, even loved ones. A cynic would say our culture is based almost entirely on fooling people. That's why we hunger so for what's authentic.
Journalists hunger for it too. It's not enough just to expose what isn't true. We have to find what is true (to the best of our abilities) or we'd never be able to write a good story. That requires developing a reliable "baloney" meter. Mine failed me this time.
Some readers might have assumed because the photo was a fake, the story wasn't credible either. That's the real shame.
There's no exception to the rule ... everybody plays the fool.
It keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously.