Stories shape the world

- in Culture, English

A story is the most powerful man-made force in the universe, and whether you want to entertain your end of the table at a sittning or persuade someone to see the world the same way you do, you’ll need to understand what stories do and how they do it.                                                                                                                                              

Sara took a bite of Annie’s apple. That’s not a story, it’s just plain old information. It says what it says, nothing more. Unless I add to it. How does that piece of info change if I tell you that Sara hadn’t eaten for three days because she’d been confined to bed with a high fever and fatigue and hallucinations and had only now managed to crawl to the kitchen where the only food she could find was Annie’s apple? How does it change if I tell you instead that Sara had just come home from the grocery store where she’d bought her own apples, but Annie’s apple looked better so she ate it? How does it change if I tell you the apple is poisoned, but Sara doesn’t know? Now what about if the apple is poisoned and Sara does know?

Those are actually trick questions, because the info didn’t change at all. Sara still took a bite of Annie’s apple. What did change is the relevance of that info: what it actually means and how you feel about it. Because now it’s a story, and stories aren’t just entertainment. Stories are how we understand the significance of information. And we’re very aware now, in the era of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” how important information is. But what’s even more dangerous than mistruths are facts presented in a compelling, possibly misleading way, because a grain of truth at the center of a story can entice people to think the whole story is true.

That’s a little too abstract, let’s go back to the apples. Say you saw Sara take the bite of Annie’s apple, and I wanted, for some reason, to make you mad at Sara. I could tell you that Annie had been saving that apple to place on her grandfather’s grave, because she and her grandfather had planted the tree together and this was the first apple that the tree had given, and Sara knew all this but still took a bite out of the special apple.

Another example: a bomb was dropped, killing ten people. How does that info feel if you call the place where it was dropped “a war zone?” How does it feel if you call that place “our capital city?” What if you call the people killed “enemies?” What if you call them “my brother and father and neighbors?”

Stories have been shaping the way we see the world since humans developed language. In a 1948 book called The Hero With A Thousand Faces, the American mythologist Joseph Campbell examined myths from different eras and corners of the world to find that most myths followed a similar plot and involved the same kinds of characters. This pattern emerged independently, thousands of times, in cultures that had no possible way of communicating with each other – so it must come from and speak to somewhere deep in human nature. Campbell, borrowing from the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, called that place “the collective unconscious,” which was home to inherited human urges like spirituality, sex, and violence.

That’s what makes a story the most powerful man-made force in the universe: it’s compelling on a fundamental level. It doesn’t matter if the story is true in the way we typically think of a story being “true,” i.e. all its facts are accurate and the narrative it describes actually happened. No, a story is true if it feels true to the person hearing it, because what they feel will be real. And people who can be made to feel are people who can be made to act. Every war, genocide, crusade, revolution, coup, and mutiny is the result of a story and the emotions it elicited. On an individual level, much of your identity has been shaped by stories that tell you what it means to be a citizen of your country, to vote how you vote, work where you work, eat what you eat, buy the things you buy.

What’s most terrifying about the persuasive power stories have is that you don’t always realize when they ask something of you. When a suggestion is embedded in a story it’s much more subtle, and therefore much more difficult to resist, than when you’re told to do something. 

One last example to drive the point home: if someone told me to wear a peacoat because it would make me look cool and smart, I’d think they were crazy, or trying to sell me a peacoat. But after I watched BBC’s Sherlock, I bought a peacoat for basically those reasons, even if I didn’t at the time totally understand what I was doing. It’s the same mechanism as when stories are weaponized into ads, propaganda, or political rhetoric. That’s the power stories have, to sell without selling, to convince without you knowing you’re being convinced. So I encourage you to be aware of the stories you’re told, where they’re coming from, and how the storyteller might benefit from making you feel the way the story makes you feel.

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