If the Zimmerman Trial Teaches Us One Thing, It’s That We Fill in “Truth Gaps” with Fiction

Donald Miller

What was most interesting about the public’s response to the George Zimmerman trial is how quickly almost everybody made up their minds about what happened, even without hearing the facts.

The narrative most people subscribe to is this: Racially charged white man with a gun harasses black teen and kills him. Man gets off and our justice system is broken.

That, of course, is not a factual narrative, but it’s a powerful narrative and one that offers the most drama while also speaking to the very real problem of racism in our society. And so organizations with various agendas have used this fictional narrative to further their cause.

Another fact about this case I found surprising was the overall acceptance of a black-and-white, hollywood style plot line. To most people, at least on television, there was a clear good guy and a clear bad guy. None of the facts supported this, either.

This, to me, speaks to our incredible ability to fill in “truth gaps” with what feels like facts, but simply aren’t. The truth is we know very little about what happened, while we feel like we do. The brain, whether we like it or not, categorizes facts into a narrative and once that narrative is subscribed to, which happens very quickly, rejects any facts that don’t support the story we’ve chosen to believe.

This is a terrible way to search for the truth and yet it’s what our brains do without us even knowing it’s happening.

Was Trayvon Martin a criminal, a hoodlum, and dangerous? Facts don’t support this at all. He was just a kid walking home from the store. Was Zimmerman a racist? Not a single witness could be found to support that, either.

This case is confusing and requires nuanced thought, an intellectual ability Americans are losing by the hour. Even a jury member has confessed Zimmerman acted like a fool and they wanted to convict him but they couldn’t find a law he’d broken (which I find to be the real tragedy.)

So what really happened? Well, what if we will never know? Are we okay with that? Likely we’re not okay with this because our brains long for resolution and when we can’t resolve an issue, we simply build a story and backfill fictional ideas to support it while rejecting facts that don’t.

What if we tell ourselves fictional narratives to support agendas we don’t even admit  we’re subscribing to?

In their book Decisive, Chip and Dan Heath call this tendency a Confirmation Bias. That is, we come to snap judgments about what we believe is true, then we lean toward data that supports our snap judgments.

Not only this, but siding with the Trayvon Martin side of the story allows us to play the role of hero, to support the underdog, to distance ourselves from racism and so forth. So the ego clearly has something to gain in taking a particular side in what is most assuredly a situation in which we don’t have all the facts.

Chip and Dan Heath also warn us of “spotlight thinking” meaning we tend to think the facts we have are the only facts that exist. What gets lost in spotlight thinking is, in short, truth. But I’m only using the Martin/Zimmeran trial as an example of our ability to create fictional narratives and come to the conclusions that most benefits our preconceived or agenda-drien ideas.

Now I want to go a completely different direction, if that’s even possible while talking about such an emotionally charged issue. I want to talk about our tendency to back fill narratives with fiction as it relates to the Christian life. What if what we’re all doing in the Zimmerman trial is happening in other, even more important aspects of our lives?

Consider the ramifications of backfilling fictional narratives in the political arena. Consider the ramifications regarding theological issues.

Interview most people and they’re certain they understand an issue when by any measure they can’t, not because they’re dumb, but because they don’t have time to study an issue from so many camera angles, not to mention there are often few facts to support our agendas anyway.

For me, following the Zimmerman trial has been frustrating, not only because it’s entirely tragic, but because it speaks to a complete devaluation of truth in our culture. Honestly, it reminds me of the theological and political arguments that take place in evangelical culture all the time, with multiple sides scrounging through limited facts to support agendas that are largely built on fictional, backfilled narratives.

For this reason, I’ve become more and more comfortable with this phrase: I don’t know.

I no longer consider this phrase a cop out, either. In fact, I now consider the phrase I don’t know a form of extreme respect for the truth. What’s wrong with admitting we can’t know something we actually can’t know? And why in the world are so many people expressing absolutely certain ideas about what happened between Zimmerman and Martin when they can’t possibly know the truth anyway? Could it be we have other agendas we aren’t admitting to or are even aware of? And how does the dynamic of backfilling truth gaps with fiction affect the culture we live in?

The problem with the phrase I don’t know is it doesn’t sell. If pastors confess they don’t actually know whether the world was made in seven days or whether we should take all of the Bible literally, they are seen as weak. But the truth is we don’t know. We don’t know whether Genesis 1 and 2 should be taken literally because the Bible doesn’t tell us. We don’t know whether scripture is inerrant because scripture doesn’t tell us. So why not just admit it rather than make confident claims we can’t possibly back up with reasoned arguments. Why not live within the ambiguity God has left us in?

Who is more weak in your opinion, a person who makes things up and sells a false narrative with confidence, or somebody who humbly admits we don’t have all the facts and yet we must go on trusting God all the same? Be careful with that question. Are we choosing false security over the truth, the truth being we can’t possibly know everything? I think many Christians today believe many things they simply can’t prove because those beliefs bring them a sense of control, security and comfort. What if God hasn’t given us all the information, and what if justice and order in the world doesn’t depend on us knowing everything anyway? What if truth lives outside of us whether we understand it or not? What if we are given just enough information to trust God and know Him but not fully understand Him or, for that matter, life itself? What if we are given some information but not all?

Should we still seek truth? Yes. Should we use what we know to seek justice? Yes. Should we make things up when we don’t have all the facts to give people a sense of comfort and security? No. Does this mean we have to live without resolution sometimes? Yes, unfortunately it does. What should we do about that?

I don’t know.

I suppose we do what we can and trust God with the rest. But in respect for truth, I’d offer we shouldn’t backfill gaps with fictional narratives, no matter how comfortable it may make us feel.

What happened between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin? I don’t know.

Was justice done? It certainly doesn’t feel like it.

Will justice be done? Yes.

This much we know is true. Justice will be done. And not by us.

Donald Miller

Donald Miller

Donald Miller is all about story. He helps people live a better story at creatingyourlifeplan.com and grow their business at storybrand.com. Follow Don on Twitter (@donaldmiller). To read more of his posts on the Storyline Blog, click here.