Reality, possibility, and “the novelist” test


Suppose you are an English teacher and you assigned your students a writing assignment where you gave them an odd situation, and had them write a background story for it so that it became plausible.  A possible situation you come up with might be this one: “a young man gets a job in a new city, and for a while is treated like everyone else, but suddenly he meets random strangers who treat him with disgust and contempt.”   Another possible situation might be “a scrawny balding middle-aged man with glasses who is anything but handsome gets a reputation of being a handsome type who impresses the fair sex, and he is pointed out to an incredulous out-of-towner, who asks “that is him?” and is told “I swear to God!”
And the third situation is the men in both stories are the same person.
(These scenarios did happen, or at least I claim they did.)
Your students would have a problem coming up with a plausible scenario for any of these, but assuming it could be done, then an important conclusion follows.  The conclusion is that these scenarios are possible.  That doesn’t mean true, it just means that given what we know, we can’t rule them out.
The reason this is important is because we often reject stories in which too many pieces are missing.  I think this is why, for example, an entire Jewish village (Sighet) in the path of the Nazis rejected a warning by an eye-witness of the awful fate that was in store for them.  I suppose wishful thinking might have played a part, but my guess is that they simply couldn’t come up with a scenario in which people from an advanced country such as Germany would want to kill harmless villagers who mind their own business.  And rationally, they should have been correct, but there many missing pieces to the puzzle which they knew nothing about.
Author Elie Wiesel’s village was warned, and did not believe the warning.

Admittedly, there are real scenarios where no student of yours could up with a plausible scenario.  For instance, if you told your students in the first days of the internet that there would be a social site called Facebook, they could accept that.  If you said that people would reveal details about themselves, such as birthday, gender, family photos, etc, your students would yawn.  But then you say that you wanted your students to explain that Facebook would have the following choices for gender:

Gender Fluid
Gender Nonconforming
Gender Questioning
Gender Variant
Try as they might, even with the help of a few beers, your students might not be able to write a plausible scenario of how this could happen.
I think the reason is that people simply don’t understand other people all that well.  That’s one reason why “the novel test” doesn’t cover the stranger possibilities.  To give another example of strangeness, Leon Trotsky, who was himself a Bolshevik (early Communist), made a good point when he said that Stalinism was “the perfect theory for gluing up the brain.”  He said this because social justice advocates all over the world defended the Russian dictator’s actions (Stalin murdered 40 million people).  David Horowitz, whose parents were communists and who himself was a leading leftist as a young man, explains: “What glued up their brains was the belief that a brave new world of social justice..existed in embryo in Soviet Russia.”
The point here is not to argue politics, but that its truly hard for anyone, including English students, to come up with a plausible scenario where many good-intentioned people could somehow miss the murder of tens of millions, and defend the person responsible.
To take another example, you could assign students who were in college in the 1950’s an essay on what could go wrong with government charity.  They would probably list the loss of initiative, or dignity, in recipients but its unlikely they would foresee this:
The reason that the children have no fathers is that government pushed them out. I saw it with friends in the sixties. All they talked about was getting pregnant so they could get on welfare and get their own apartment away from their parents. Many never finished school. If they [the government?] found the men living with them they cut off the money. The men could live on very little so they had no reason to advance or become successful. They lived in what we called flophouses and could sit and get high and have a good time. Soon that good time took its toll on the body and that part time job wouldn’t buy the drugs they needed to get high. so they stole and sold it to the dealers who sold it to the black market shops. I had so many friends who went this route.
While we can’t predict the future, the “novel test” does have a useful function.  If you reject someone’s experience or beliefs simply because you would have to make many assumptions for it to be true, you could be wrong.  Sit back, and ask yourself – what would have to be true for these experiences to correspond to reality?  If you could come up with a chain of events, then the “probability” of the experiences (or worldview) might be low, but it would not be zero.
So the next time a wild eyed disheveled man speaking in tongues says that he is Napoleon — well OK, that one isn’t plausible.
Clinton and Obama (a pamphlet) by David Horowitz (one of the comments)
Elie Wiesel’s book “All Rivers Run To The Sea”

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