Truth, Heritage, and Family Lore



Should it matter whether your beliefs about your heritage are true?

There’s been considerable media hoopla surrounding whether US Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren is in fact of Native American heritage, as she was raised to believe. The attention has been stoked by her opponent, Senator Scott Warren, who has gotten away with deeply offensive comments on this score, jibing that all we need do is “look at her” to know the truth about her heritage. The idea that our appearance alone might confirm or belie who we are is at the root of much racial prejudice, and indeed, I wish Ms. Warren had said as much during the first debate (on this subject, check out this blog). But I’m not concerned here with whether the public should care about Ms. Warren’s heritage, or whether it’s relevant to her candidacy (they shouldn’t, and it’s not). Rather, I’ve been wondering about a rather different question, namely: should it matter to someone whether what she believes about her heritage is true?

In her recent op-ed “All My Mother’s Stories,” Judy Bolton-Fasman suggests an answer. She compares Ms. Warren’s knowledge of her heritage, passed down through family lore, with her own mother’s claim that she is a descendant of the Spanish dukes of Albuquerque. Ms. Bolton-Fasman discovered later in life that many of her mother’s stories about her youth in Cuba were untrue, and wonders whether this should lead her to question the stories of her heritage as well. On the contrary, Ms. Bolton-Fasman concludes that both for her and Ms. Warren, the fact that their heritage is corroborated by family lore is the only fact that matters: “When it comes to family lore, true and false are besides the point.”

Before we evaluate this statement, it is worth nothing that though Ms. Bolton-Fasman tells a good story, she doesn’t offer much by way of argument for her conclusion. She notes that the story of Ms. Warren’s heritage “has been perpetuated with well-intentioned conviction” and that it “has inspired her to identify with the dispossessed and work on behalf of the marginalized.” The first claim is about deceit: she is saying that Ms. Warren didn’t try and put one over on the public, and so cannot be accused of dishonesty. But this is a non sequitur: the fact that no one should blame Ms. Warren for dishonesty, while true, is irrelevant to whether the truth of her story matters. If I tell you to go right at the fork in the road because I honestly believe this is the correct route to your destination, then I can’t be accused of trying to mislead you. But it still matters whether going right at the fork is the correct instruction: if not, I’ve unintentionally set you on the wrong path, and may even suffer the same consequences myself. To be clear, I am not yet making any claim about whether the fact of Ms. Warren’s heritage matters, but only explaining that her own honesty in expressing beliefs about her heritage does not bear on that question.

The second claim is that Ms. Warren’s belief in her heritage had good effects. This may well be the case, but is that sufficient to warrant the strong conclusion that truth and falsity are irrelevant to claims about heritage passed down through family lore? Only if you believe that good effects are all that matters. The fact that Ms. Warren’s belief in her heritage had good effects is consistent with the facts about her heritage mattering to her in other ways. For instance, suppose Ms. Warren discovered that she lacked any Native American ancestors. She might acknowledge and value the good effects of growing up with certain beliefs about her heritage, but she might also feel unmoored by a revelation that is at odds with a core aspect of her identity.

Therefore, while I certainly agree that the public has no bone to pick with Ms. Warren, honesty and the good effects of believing in her heritage do not warrant the conclusion that “true and false are besides the point,” particularly when it comes to questioning the relevance of the facts about her heritage to her. Of course, Ms. Warren has no good reason to doubt her heritage (the claims of her belligerent opponent notwithstanding), but we can still consider the question of why the truth might matter.

So, should you care about the facts of your heritage? I’ve already suggested one way in which the facts might matter psychologically: if they are inconsistent with your beliefs, they might make you feel disconnected from your own self-conception. But the fact that learning the truth about your heritage might have undesirable psychological effects is not equivalent to the claim that you should care about that knowledge. Indeed, a comforting relative might say: “Look, it doesn’t really matter whether we’re descended from [insert your relevant ancestral group here]. What matters is that these are our stories: that’s how we identify.” What we’re faced with is a question about what facts are relevant. Importantly, while facts about one’s actual biological ties might change the truth of certain stories, they do not change the fact that a certain set of stories and beliefs are part of one’s familial and cultural identity. I take it that this is the real heart of Ms. Bolton-Fasman’s conclusion. Perhaps it is merely having such an identity that matters, independent of the truth of the stories on which it is founded. Family myths often acquire lives of their own, changing like the whispers in a game of telephone as they are retold across generations. If the telling of family stories doesn’t really endeavor to preserve truth, then that might be a reason not to care if they are completely true, nor to seek out proof of their veracity.

However, though family stories may not be committed to the preservation of truth, we can distinguish between cases where a story is embellished and cases where the original and central claims of the story are untrue. A story might be such a fabrication that the rejoinder that “these are our stories” could ring false: on the contrary, it may start to seem as if they are someone else’s stories. Indeed, to take a limit case, imagine a scenario in which it turned out that the family lore on which you were raised really did belong to a different family: the stories were all true, but they were about a childhood neighbor of your great-great-grandfather’s instead of him. You can even imagine that these stories center on a certain ethnic or religious heritage that is not in fact shared by your family. It seems reasonable to believe that such a revelation might indeed challenge the value and relevance of those stories to your own identity by undermining the sense in which the stories are yours.

I won’t attempt to say which kinds of creative liberties are at home in family lore and which suggest a foundation of sand, but I hope to have gotten the ball rolling by suggesting some ways in which the facts of your heritage and the truth of family lore might or might not be significant to you. It is always unfortunate when such a subtle question arises in the polarizing context of a political smear campaign, but all the more reason to step back and think carefully about the topic in its own right.


Tags: cultural heritage, family lore, philosophy

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