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Fantastical Thinking: Our Nation’s Other Epidemic

Updated: Feb 4, 2021

Lately, we’ve been losing the battle against a raging epidemic, but not the one you’re thinking of. This one is to do with mental health: An epidemic of ordinary citizens who are unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality.

Here’s a fantasy: Harry Potter, although raised by Muggle (non-magical) parents, is actually a boy wizard. In contrast, here’s a fact: The 2020 elections were, as per usual, orderly and accurate.

And yet, the Harry Potter books are among the top ten titles banned by schools in the US, despite the Island Trees School District v. Pico (1982) Supreme Court case, which ruled that school officials can’t ban books in libraries because of their contents. The American Library Association, which sponsors Banned Books Week, reports that the Harry Potter series is “Banned and forbidden from the discussion for referring to magic and witchcraft, for containing actual curses and spells, and for characters that use ‘nefarious means to attain goals.” (Some of my own writing has met a similar fate.) Do people believe that the silly spells in these stories are actually real—or that no one outside of Harry Potter novels puts ends before means?

This segways us back to the ‘big lie’ of the 2020 election, which some people actually believed so fervently that it leads them to break into the Capital and pummel Capital Police with fire extinguishers.

According to an article entitled Do Republicans really believe the election was stolen – or are they just saying that? in The Washington Post, it states “Although there’s no widespread evidence of election fraud, fully 72 percent of Republicans say they don’t trust the presidential election results.” Professor Elizabeth C. Connors of the University of South Carolina, the author, concludes that “those who genuinely believe the election was stolen are pressuring fellow party members to say they believe that as well.” Fact versus fiction: It’s not as clean a line these days as it ought to be.

The Fantasy Prone Personality is a disorder in which people have trouble telling fantasy from reality. Those with abnormally high scores on this scale are prone to believing in conspiracy theories. The average score is 9, but people who score closer to the top of the scale (17) may believe that Democrats snuck into hundreds of ballot processing offices and reprogrammed the electronic equipment, despite no evidence of this massive, extraordinarily clever, fingerprint-less crime.

Fiction authors such as myself, while measuring much higher than the average person on scales of creativity and imagination, are not in the danger zone on that fantasy scale. Fantasy author Mark Lawrence (The Red Queen’s War) actually collected data from hundreds of fellow authors and reports an average of 10.9, which is slightly higher than non-authors but not delusional. We like, even love, our fantasy, but we don’t actually believe it.

Interestingly, reading a lot more fiction may inoculate our youngsters from the fantasy trap; while narrowing what they read and learn about through censorship (of books and, in Fox country, news too), fails to give them the contextual knowledge needed to smell a lie. As long as censorship remains widespread, this epidemic of fanatical thinking will spread uncontrolled too.

It seems fitting to wrap up our consideration of fact versus fiction with another young adult title: George by Alex Gino, which tops the most recent ALA list of banned books because of “LGBTQIA+ content and a transgender character”. Heaven forbid any of our children should read about anyone who isn't completely conforming to their gender norms, when, to cite another well-established fact, nationally 4.5% of respondents to a Gallup Daily survey say they “personally identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender” (with a high of 9.8% in the District of Columbia and a low of 2.7% in North Dakota, where social pressure biases the reporting).

It’s striking how the states with the lowest LGBT percentages are those where books about magic and LGBTQIA+ are frequently banned. Here we have a collision of facts and fantasies. Even if we ignore the under-reporting, we can still say that the average classroom has one or more kids who would feel more at home reading George than The Hardy Boys. Allowing these students and classmates who may not yet understand them to read books like George would be really helpful, especially in places where adults are suffering badly from fantastical thinking.

Here’s the best cure for an epidemic of foolish belief in lies and misinformation: Reading more fantasy! By exercising the imagination through healthy fictional fantasies, our students will learn to identify fantasy and by comparison, a reality too.

Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure available now on Amazon.

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