By Jim McCord

The Belief Trap

An investigator had best perk up when someone says "I believe..." For that is a very tricky statement. Plato ranked belief as the "lowest" of our mental faculties. Yet it can overwhelm all the other faculties -- including a hardened "heart" -- notably within the soft "head" of a political and/or religious terrorist (as projected from 1950 by Eric Hoffer's classic, THE TRUE BELIEVER).

A trap opens in the tricky way a statement of belief implies the very opposite of whatever is made explicit; since it always seems possible to construct a counter-argument to this effect. (Language is structurally prolific in that way: exasperatingly flexible.)To open the next act, our inquirer might ask: just what is it that is believed anyway?

The Framing Function of Fiction

Story telling is deeply existential to everyday life. What people do not comprehend they invent. (Just listen to the children.) Novel writers and dreams alike construct "symbolic" truths within frameworks of fiction.

Global mythology follows the same pattern -- over the ages -- as human experience is processed into fantasies "explaining" the inscrutable. Thus the myth of Santa Claus simplifies symbolically some enigmatic truths about give and take.

People internalize mythology into their own world-views --fictional models of reality oversimplified--which become background sources of beliefs and biases. Each thereby identifies emotionally, and more or less intensively, with a "personal history" of experience conditioned by truths within fictions.

Witness Credibility

One investigating a car wreck, for illustration, first consults a police report documenting indisputably workable "facts" (time, place and drivers, etc.) When these are exhausted the evidence turns into sheer "opinions" about what happened.

The most objective opinions usually come from witnesses least ensconced, emotionally, in their "personal history" permeated by beliefs and biases. The less mature and honest tend to report what they "wish" to have seen (as conditioned by their own framework of beliefs within fictions).

Hearsay and History

Advanced legal systems restrict the admissibility of second-hand "hearsay" from persons not before a count to be tested for credibility. Long experience has shown the folly --indeed gullibility-- of blindly taking someone's word for information, who is not even present.

This empirical lesson is obviously applicable to the compilation of history generally (including the scriptural). Thus an issue in re-creating history is whether sources thereof have intermingled both undisputed and supposed "facts" with personal interpretations of "symbolic" truth (typical beliefs) and their mythologically fictional framework.

Mythology and Culture

Anyone investigating the past easily confuses imaginative mythology and "factual" history; with misplaced emphasis on the latter (which is far less objective than commonly supposed). Maximal isolation of uncontroverted facts (about dates, etc.) is vital of course --especially in court cases-- but from there an inquiry into whatever the sources believe happened becomes, more or less, a matter of opinion and "mythology." (As one might say about all the conflicting theories on the Kennedy assassination.)

What actually happened becomes problematic at some point; necessarily. For historic purposes generally it need not always matter that much: for example, whether the legendary John Henry was a "real" person. Certainly it matters not whether Santa Claus is.

Poetic stories about such characters carry inspirational value regardless. Indeed humans "drink their lives" more from the cup of culture (and its framework of symbolic mythology) than from dry facts. (Consult the opening page of anthropologist Ruth Benedict, PATTERNS OF CULTURE ((earlier 20th century).)

What does matter, notwithstanding, is how well people can take their own mythological framework with a grain of salt: enough to live each day as a new challenge (realistically).

Human Liberation

The mature individual is a perennial investigator. This entails freedom from verbal preoccupation with formative "personal history," and confidence instead to experience reality directly --the immediate and the obvious-- without constantly commenting to oneself about what is happening. One who is thereby open-minded typically makes the least distracted witness to the wonder of history (and car wrecks).

   McCord holds the B.S. in Ed. from Southwest Missouri State, the J.D. from Washington University of St. Louis and the L.L.M. in jurisprudence and public administration from the University of Pennsylvania.

    He has served as consultant to the American Bar Foundation Project to Describe the Administration of Criminal Justice in the United States; legal editor and writer for the Practising Law Institute of New York City; and editor and supervisor of the Commerce Clearing House Government Contracts Reporter. He is the author of "Commentaries on the Robinson-Patman Act" (Practising Law Institute, 1969), and has written and/or edited numerous articles and books.

Used With permission from John Huey's website: Voice Of Justice