The Ariel Phenomenon

ariel-scuttle-pipeRemember Disney’s the Little Mermaid? She went to her friend the seagull for the information she craved about the surface world, and he dispensed bad information with great authority and enthusiasm. Have you ever wondered what her life was like for the first year or so on land as she discovered that that which she’d had no reason to doubt turned out to be total hogwash?

That happens all the time! Where did Skuttle get this bad information? He clearly loved Ariel and wouldn’t have set her up to be hurt on purpose. Did he misinterpret what he saw? Did someone else feed him bad information? Did he just not care because he couldn’t imagine that anything he told her would  matter since it would never come up?

My parents, exemplary as they were in most instances, often expressed the idea that “the truth should never get in the way of a good story”. My mother re-told a story Dad had told her in college about a study in which because pigs have “incomplete digestion”, a test group of pigs gained more weight than the control group when fed the manure of the control group, and a third set, fed the manure of the second, gained the most weight. Twenty years later Dad overheard her passing this on to someone and pointed out that he would never expect anyone as intelligent as she was to have believed such nonsense. She, in turn, pointed out that she’d never expect her husband, who had been to agricultural college and learned things completely outside her experience, to lie to her. Besides, it was presented as a scientific study, no doubt seasoned with (made up) names of scholars and institutions.

This also reminds me of a lesson told me by a teacher who, her first day teaching first grade, told the kids to line up. They milled around cooperatively, but she eventually realized that they had never been told what “line up” meant. When she showed them, they were able to do it, and did so happily. Her biggest lesson in teaching, she said, was learning not to assume that people know anything, even what you consider basic, self evident, or common knowledge.

Our family (like many others) dislikes lying intensely, but don’t consider telling “tall tales”- stories told for amusement that you do not expect to be believed to be lies. On the other hand, when you believe the story, it doesn’t matter whether you were meant to be tricked, you still feel like you were.

In the Ariel Effect, there’s always the chance that one may have not considered that what they considered “common knowledge” or “self evident” isn’t, or people can even pass on bad information innocently because the teller believes it. It happens all the time in modern “social networking” (and did before electronic media as well). A “juicy” story, unusual enough or important enough to generate interest would be passed around the town at what might seem impossible rates before the internet, because the “gossips” felt that their friends deserved or needed to know about it. We judge people by what (we think) they’ve said or done, so it’s understandable that we want to know as much as possible. But I know that I can’t keep track of where I heard every piece of information. (This is, no doubt, why in academia every point needs to be documented. Yay, for them, but that’s not how information is passed in the most cases.) So I have lots of information, and the bulk of it may turn out to be total BS.

One of my old friends, Fitz, was an amateur historian and read voraciously. He collected amazing stories from history and really brought it alive for his listeners. But, sadly, he was not above “improving” a story, and now that he’s dead, I have no idea which of the great stories he shared I can safely pass along, and which should not be trusted. Fitz’s special interest was the Crusader kingdoms of Acre, and there was a great story about a young king of Tyre who used to exercise by swimming out offshore, then “riding his shield” back in. Most people assumed he swam out until he got tired with attendants in a boat following for safety and they’d toss a shield out and drag him in so he didn’t feel like a wuss who needed to be fished out. But Fitz discovered Horse_Surfingthat the area near his castle is now known for good surfing, and that shields in that period were long ovals (like surfboards). Perhaps when he “rode in” on his shield, he was not being pulled, but riding the waves. It’s certainly not proven, but it’s possible. See what I mean by great stories? But how do I know if this was true or one of his embroideries?

In the SCA we constantly run across disagreements about how things were in the past. In a history book I once found a picture of a man getting out of his mail hauberk the way people in the SCA do all the time- lean over, hike it up over your hips, and let gravity take it off. The caption, however, informed the reader that “despite this amusing contemporary image, it is impossible to get out of a mail shirt without help from a a retainer.” Oh really?! Did this guy ever try it?haberk (OK, in the illustration he has yet to lift the hem up over his hips- that is required.) But still, the best way to test something is to TRY it! That’s the greatest advantage that re-enactors have over book historians.

I have a solid history of being “gullible”. After all, I think, why would anyone lie to me? But so many facts I’ve worked hard to learn have changed over the years as research expands, that I no longer feel badly when I discover that what I “knew” wasn’t true.  I do worry that I might mislead people by passing on bad information that I believe at the time, or by making a joke that the listeners didn’t recognize as one.

Or people can simply mishear something. Once someone (I never found out who) overheard me gushing about how well behaved Wanda von Halstern’s children were. Sadly, whoever it was misheard me say “ill behaved” (not WELL behaved- an easy mistake if you didn’t hear the whole conversation, just the phrase) with the result that, when she told Wanda that I was saying horrible things about her children, the Queen was quite reasonably hurt (her kids were wonderfully behaved, which is why often I used them as an example). Her friend almost certainly had no reason to distrust her own ears, so she wasn’t lying; she was simply, and sadly, wrong. Iit was months later that I found out, after our relationship had soured over this horrible thing I’d said (but didn’t). So not only do we have to check facts that seem reasonable to us, we also apparently need to check facts from people we trust, or even our own ears. Is there any source we can trust? Maybe not. I’ve even discovered I can’t trust my own years (I’ll save that for another post).

I shall continue to be gullible, and believe what people tell me. I shall continue to be open to the idea of a young crusader surfing in the 12th century. But at the same time, when I hear that someone is being nasty, I will try to check with the source, or at least hold on to the possibility that there’s an interpretation of the facts that mitigates the apparent nastiness. I encourage others to save their cynicism for that as well. I think we can agree that most people don’t consider themselves nasty, so they probably aren’t. But all of us can do things that mislead or hurt feelings by mistake, and basing interactions on those instances is a bad way to run our lives. Expect goodness from people and you usually won’t be disappointed.


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