Beta Culture: The Poison of Stories

Bracket copyI’m having this idea. Haven’t worked it out completely, but … here’s the main part.

First, let’s go back to earlier in the year and look at this post: Beta Culture: Seeing the Brackets. (Its illo is just to the right here.)

This is a sister post to that one, and to me clarifies and expands what I was really getting at back then. So:

A great deal of what we humans do in day-to-day living is creating stories to live by.

Some of them might be stories of personal identity – Faithful Believer, Obedient Daughter, Dangerous Rogue, the Funny Kid, Tough Guy, Wild Girl, Smarter Than You, Scary Biker Dude, Poor Little Mistreated Thing, Compassionate Liberal, Staunch Conservative, or so many other roles to define oneself.

Some of them are ways of viewing the world or the people around us – You’re Wrong About Everything, Barack Obama Wants to Take Our Guns, Everything Will Be Okay Because I Have Jesus, The Bilderbergers Run The World, GMOs are Totally Safe and Anybody Who Doesn’t Think So is a Hateful Luddite, All Men Are Just Waiting For Their Chance to Rape and Abuse Women.

It’s this second one, the bit about ways of viewing the world, I kinda want to talk about.

As a writer myself, I know how to write a story and make it interesting. You’ve got these conceptual elements, or this idea, and you turn it into a story. You emphasize certain parts, leave other parts out. You create a narrative, and carve out everything that doesn’t fit. You embellish it, you add tweaks, to make it interesting. Not true, but interesting. More than informing your chosen audience, your goal is to attract and hold their attention. (Ha. Suddenly FOX News comes to mind.)

You fictionalize deliberately in order to capture interest.

In entertainment-type storifying, you do it for that simple reason: to entertain. But other types of storifying have much less innocent aims.

Storifying is yet another of the things that bothers me about religion. Religion is harmful not just because it’s factually false, it’s harmful because it causes you to accept its STORY. Worse, it conditions you to accept not just its own story, but stories themselves.

And here’s the thing: If I tell you certain things and say they are facts, you may or may not accept that those things are facts. You can reject or critique those items. You might be moved to do your own research to find out if they really are facts.

But if I tell you a STORY and get you to accept it, you will thereafter reject or accept additional information ALL BY YOURSELF — depending on whether or not it fits the story. In other words, you yourself become a defender and supporter of that story and all that goes with it.

You can be presented with information which is verifiably factual, and yet reject it because it doesn’t fit the story. You can discover other information which is easily proven false, and yet accept it because it does fit the story. Once you buy into the story, nobody has to argue to convince you of additional parts of the story – you yourself will include and exclude the facts that fit or don’t fit.

You will reject things, ignore things, that fly in the face of the story. You will step totally outside real reality, which is lumpy and uncertain and chock full of facts that don’t fit, and you will cleave to the story.

Jesus wasn’t born in the middle of winter? Doesn’t matter. No way Noah could have gotten two of every species on the ark? Ain’t important. Geology proves the Earth is billions of years old? Says who?

The Bible is not just dangerous because of false facts, it’s dangerous because it turns the entire universe into this story. And such stories are seductive not just because they’re entertaining and, perhaps, internally consistent (which reality may not always appear to be), but because they’re easy to swallow and understand. And once you accept a story, you can feel like you’re there, you understand, you KNOW.

Because I write, because I’m familiar with the storifying process, I’m probably more aware of stories than the general public. But only recently have I started to understand the hazard. This is DANGEROUS, kids, because it turns you into a permanent ally of people who have a vested interest in lying to you, in manipulating you. Once you get caught by their story, you’re an unwitting team member, pretty much forever.

Because anybody can tell you a story. They may not even know they’re making up a story. And you certainly may not realize you’ve accepted it. But if you buy into it, you’re trapped. You have to accept everything presented to you that fits the story, and you have to reject everything presented to you that does not fit the story.

Is Barack Obama a secret Muslim? Oh yeah. Which means he wants to destroy America. Which means EVERYTHING he does must be inspected for its hateful real purpose.

Is Hillary Clinton a manipulative, murderous bitch? Well, of course. That decency and compassion stuff is all just an act, and the part where she looks presidential, it’s a viciously deceitful pose. Every smile and laugh, every expression of calm confidence, is a poisonous trick.

Is there a “liberal media” that’s out to get all the GOP candidates? Absolutely. Which means every question is a sly attack, meant to destroy this panel of good, honest, Christian men who would all make perfect presidents. Have they made Sarah Palin look like an utter fool? That must mean she’s an intelligent, poised statesman, a rich well of wisdom from which every American could benefit.

Is Al Gore a tool of the secret cabal that wants to enslave and disenfranchise us all? Well, sure he is. Therefore global warming has to be an utter hoax.

But also: Are all men vicious rapists, just waiting the chance to brutalize women? Yes, this is known. Therefore, any man who argues with a feminist about any issue whatsoever does it because he’s a mansplaining hater of women who supports Rape Culture and the Patriarchy.

And also: Are all cops malignant racists, and every shooting of a black man is deliberate murder? Totally. Therefore, all black men shot by cops are harmless victims who cannot possibly have done anything wrong. (And don’t you fucking dare accuse me of not knowing about real racism.)

And again also: Are all homeless people simple honest victims of a bad economy? Yep. Therefore ANY attempt by a city to keep homeless people from congregating in city parks, or sleeping in apartment entryways is a hateful attack on the innocent.

Speaking of my own experience, I’ve had countless run-ins with people who are so caught up in the story of GMOs that they’re willing to say that nobody should be allowed to even know if a food contains genetically modified ingredients, that consumers MUST NOT be given the choice, because otherwise children elsewhere in the world will starve and go blind. And these are people who consider themselves staunch advocates of science and reason. Yes, I know there’s more to the subject. But this STORY keeps them from being able to admit there are rational views on the subject that might simultaneously be critical of GMOs, or pro-labeling, and yet not be coming from hateful screaming-insane luddites.

Every movement that storifies is guilty of trafficking in the same sort of dangerous socio-cultural acts as religion. Hell, we probably learned it from religion.

I know there’s a great deal more that could be said here. I sense that there’s a major field of study that someone smarter than me has already discovered and examined at length. But the idea that stories can be dangerous is new to me. And because of that, damned scary.

Because the real world is not a story. It isn’t even a collection of stories. It’s facts. Real-world phenomena. Data. All mixed up in a confusing, ultra-complex mess that can be bewilderingly deep, scarily unpredictable.

Surfing reality’s swirling patterns is a job for a rational being, not a consumer of stories. For every story you buy into, you become that much less capable of understanding the world around you, that much less able to be a free and independent thinker.

For every story you reject, you become that much more able to see the array of facts hidden behind them, that much more able to reach trustworthy, accurate conclusions about how things really work.

I would want this to be one of the most basic teachings of Beta Culture – that stories exist, that they’re dangerous, and that you have to constantly work to recognize and steer clear of them in order to be a rational being.

  • The Eh’theist

    I agree with you, and yet I don’t, because what you have written is a story as well. I agree that we have to keep a loose grip on our narratives, and verify verify, verify, but at the end of the day, science would be nowhere without hypotheses and theories; and the social sciences would be non-existent without hypotheses and narratives.

    Without some sort of explanation to connect facts, no action could be taken, yet as you’ve noted, that explanation must not become so primary, that the facts end up ignored in favour of the story.

    • Hank Fox

      I think you’ve misunderstood the concept. What’s the connection between “this is how evolution/gravity/electromagnetism works” and “this is what the ‘liberal media’ does to GOP candidates”?

      One of them is explanatory and illuminating, a way to help us understand physical phenomena, to give us power over our lives by increasing our knowledge. The other is pure propaganda, a socio-political tool meant to confuse and control people, to cause them to have LESS power over their lives.

      In the sense I mean it, hypotheses and theories are nothing like stories.

      • The Eh’theist

        Hi, sorry it took so long to reply, I needed to wrap up my outside work yesterday before we go below freezing here.

        If I misunderstood you I apologize, but there were two senses in which I was responding: (1) noting that your post was in fact a “story” about how stories can harm individuals and society, and (2) my point about how hypotheses and theories are like stories.

        I think you’d agree that at least (1) is correct in that you’ve created a narrative about what stories are, who promoted them and the potential negative impact they can have on people and communities. While I agree with most of what you’ve included in your story, and think it is factually defensible if challenged, there would be other people, with other viewpoints who would claim that your story is harmful to them. Hence my point about needing to verify stories and align them with the facts we possess.

        In terms of (2), I was making the distinction between facts (data, measurements, etc) and the explanations created about them. If we look at atomic models, there was originally a “story” about atoms told by the ancient Greeks. While it had some accurate points, there were many errors in it, at the beginning of the 20th century the “plum pudding” model of the atom was a popular story that appeared to address much of the data we had, but it too had a number of errors. We then moved to the “story” of the planetary model of the atom, again more in line with the data we possessed, which advanced our thinking, but our latest discoveries have shown us that even that model must be superseded with another story about the atom. Comparing Darwin’s understanding of Evolution to the modern theory (which includes our understanding of genetics) is another example.

        I was attempting to point out that all explanation are ‘stories’ in one sense, and their faithfulness to reality determines their usefulness and potential to harm people. I agree that the power of storytelling can be misused to cover up wrong, and to blind people to opportunities for freedom and self-expression, but well-intentioned stories can also have those same negative effects if based on incorrect information, or by omitting key data. Asbestos is an example of this, where we saw its benefits immediately, and the negative parts of the story were only discovered later, and even then, harm was caused by a failure to heed the warnings.

        I hope I haven’t run on too long trying to explain myself. As I stated, I agree that we need to be aware of the dangers of stories, and to test the explanations we hear against reality and measurable facts to minimize harm as much as possible. We also need to call out those who misuse the power of story deliberately, and correct those who do it by accident.

  • BeaverTales

    I’m trying to watch more comedy. Laughing is important, not just in a Norman Cousins way. I don’t buy into all of his ideas about vitamin C as “cure-all”, but I think laughing has healing qualities, based on personal experience during illness. I want it to be true, anyway, so in a way it’s real, even if it isn’t. At least laughing isn’t harmful..

    The examples you gave rightfully should be Onion headlines, yet they are “real” based on the number of people who either actually believe them or want them to be truth. I don’t want to hear these stories except to help make me aware of how crazy people really are. “Crazy” is believing in fantasies. So is gullibility. It’s a type of harm to a vulnerable brain.

    I don’t want to be the only sober one at the party. I am selfish and just want to let go, laugh and feel pleasure. Reality and sanity can be a huge burden in life, I say that because it’s tiring to process all the things happening around, and hard to sort out the important things from the crap (i.e. misinformation) but someone has to be the designated driver for everyone else to be able to enjoy the party. Since the world is often more depressing than funny, I’ll take *healthy* fantasy if I can. When is the next Star Wars trilogy due?