So when I was in high school I had a job as a runner, which is to say that I moved legal papers hither and yon, between law offices and government offices, and occasionally found myself with worryingly large checks or even sums of cash in my little bag.
When I first got the job, the office manager told me, in what I assumed at the time was jest, that they always hired girls for the position, and she hoped I’d do as well.
It was a month or two into the job, which included handling all the filing, that she pulled me aside and asked me why that particular aspect of the job was taking me so long.
“None of the girls we ever hired had nearly as much trouble with it”, she said waspishly.
To which I took a deep breath, looked her straight in the eye, and replied as evenly as I could manage: “It’s taking so long because I’m spending half my time fixing the mistakes that the last two or three people to have the position made.”
She looked at me indignantly for a few moments and then huffed off. I presume that, once I went home for the day, she started pulling files and verifying my story, because she apologized for confronting me the very next day. After another month or so, I had all the files properly organized, at which point I had enough spare time on my hands sitting around waiting for something to do that I wound up reading the Delaware Law Review, which should give you an idea of just how excruciatingly bored I was.
Did that story fill you with righteous fury? Or confirm some deeply held inner bias? Did it make you angry, or sad, or just reassure your preconceptions of how the world works?
Because it should have done none of those things.
The story was an anecdote, and what that means, above and beyond all other things, is that its veracity cannot be verified. You have to take my word for it; it names neither times, nor places, nor people. It’s an utter crapshoot on your part as to whether or not I was telling the truth at all, or just crafting a tale to illustrate some insinuation.
And yet when you get out there on social media you’ll find thousands of accounts like this, only vastly more outrageous. I at least made my anecdote reasonably plausible; there are a lot of people out there who will recount a series of events whose unlikelihood boggles the mind, portraying utterly unrealistic behavior from everyday people, and typically painting themselves as the champion of all that is good and right in their view of the world.
And people just eat it up with a damned spoon.
What’s worse is that they pass the bloody things around, and pretty soon what was once an anecdotal account on someone’s Tumblr blog or Twitter feed goes viral, at which point any thinking person must perforce reclassify it, from anecdotal to apocryphal.
“Trust, But Verify” has sadly given way to “Listen and Believe” in many quarters, regardless of ideology, so long as the story being told lines up with the preconceived notions of the reader.
To make things even worse, the sheer amount of manufactured bullshit floating around out there utterly devalues any personal anecdotes that do have some truth to them. The signal to noise ratio is atrocious, an endless drone of manufactured controversy that desperately tries to lend credence to badly flawed arguments.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen stories that are frankly unbelievable cross my social media feeds with people pointing and squawking “LOOK! LOOK! SEE! THIS IS HOW IT IS!” with no regard to the fact that the story they’re quoting names no names, no places, no dates, has no verifiable information of any kind, and portrays such a blatantly unrealistic situation and outcome that while it might be something that could happen, the odds of it actually occurring as written are practically nil.
I find myself forced to treat all such tales as equally spurious, which is irritating. I’d like to believe that at least some people really are that righteous, or that horrible, that people can be trusted to convey the truth rather than push an agenda, but experience has taught me otherwise.
If you can’t find a true story to illustrate your point and instead decide to make one up, chances are that your point is full of shit.