One might ask oneself. Is the rise of Donald Trump and fake news, an anomaly in the history of the USA or the natural progression of an American fascination with the tall tale? In preparing our future generations to evaluate and understand fake news. To test the plethora of information that they consume. Can we learn valuable lessons from our shared heritage of the tall tale?
Whilst things were; ‘huge in Texas’ they were ‘awesome in California’. They were ‘sweet as in New Zealand’, ‘magical in Ireland’ and ‘fair dinkum in Australia”. If we are honest, most of us have a tendency towards exaggeration and myth-building. It is therefore not surprising that in many cultures we will find a collection of tall tales, or characters and heroes that fulfil a similar purpose.
In the USA we have figures such as; Jim Bowie, Daniel Boone, and Jigger Johnson. In Australia we find; Rodney Ansell, Crocodile Dundee, and Crooked Mick. The Canadians gave us; Big Joe Mufferaw and Ti-Jean, from Estonia we have Toell the Great. The Europeans gave us one of my favourite characters the German nobleman Baron Münchhausen, or how could we forget Finn MacCool from Ireland. Of course not to be outdone the English claim that Will Ritson was ‘the biggest liar in the world’. All these characters and many other stories from around the world prove the age-old adage that we should never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
The fundamental principle of the modern tall tale is that we take a kernel of truth. Exaggerate and twist this kernel until we end up with a story that is extravagant, entertaining, comical and yet still plausible.
It could be said that the common elements between fake news and tall tales are the exaggeration and sensationalism involved. Where they differ is that tall tales are an attempt to entertain and we are often aware that the teller is ‘yanking our chain’ or ‘pulling our leg’. Whereas in fake news the intent is to mislead the intended audience.
In preparing our students to evaluate modern media, it is a good time to look back to our history of the tall tale. Tell your students these stories of men and women, and let them evaluate the truth from the exaggeration. Tell them stories from your own childhood with elements of the tall tale and see if they can distinguish fact from fiction. Have a tall tale telling competition where students take a true event from their lives and turn it into a tall tale.
The photo at the head of this article was from a sceptics conference that I spoke at many years ago. It was a fabulous time telling supernatural stories and tall tales to a group of people who pride themselves on their scepticism. There is no better way to provide a healthy scepticism in our future generations than by introducing them to the power of stories and the tall tale.
I leave you with this video snippet about my childhood haircuts told in the style of an American tall tale. See if you can spot the fact from the fiction.
Haircut (a snippet of a personal narrative)