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The Power of Stories to Tear Us Apart

“In his TED Talk ‘Be suspicious of stories,’ Tyler Cowen explains that, when we create stories, ‘We’re imposing order on the mess we observe.'”

The power of stories is undeniable. Across all cultures, humans create and share stories obsessively—in conversations, books, movies, Twitter threads, etc. “We tell and take in stories as much as we sleep—and even then we dream,” writes screenwriting guru Robert McKee. To explain why this is so, he quotes film critic Kenneth Burke: “Stories are equipment for living.” 

In virtually all respects, stories are considered a powerful force for good. Today, operating in parallel to the multi-billion-dollar entertainment industry, there is a sub-industry of intellectuals touting the powerful mental health benefits associated with consuming stories. For example, fiction writer George Saunders regularly appears on mainstream outlets to discuss how literature has the power to increase a person’s empathy towards others. The psychologist Jordan Peterson recently achieved international celebrity in part by championing the life-affirming benefits of Biblical stories. And literature professor Angus Fletcher is currently promoting his new book Wonderworks, which walks through 25 “inventions” in literature that help humans express love, overcome fear and trauma, and generally navigate life.

There is no doubt that stories have beneficial powers. In fact, it is difficult not to appreciate the work that Saunders, Peterson, Fletcher, and others do to promote the power of stories. But it is curious how rarely public intellectuals talk about the ways in which stories bring about harm. It may be the case that “stories are equipment for living,” but that does not mean that stories are necessarily equipment for living well. On balance, the benefits of stories no doubt outweigh the downsides, but that does not mean we should ignore the downsides—especially at this time in history, when conflicting stories are directly responsible for causing the greatest divisions in families, between political parties, and between nations.

In her popular TED TalkThe Danger of a Single Story,” author Chimamanda Adichie highlights one specific way in which stories can be harmful. If one only has a “single story” about a person or about a culture, then he will almost certainly have a false impression of that person or culture. For example, when Adichie moved from Nigeria to go to college in the United States, she recalls:

“My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my ‘tribal’ music, and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey…She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me…My roommate had a single story of Africa.”

This example shows how stories can unintentionally cause harm. When someone shares a single story about a person, he likely does not intend to spread prejudice. It is often a forgivable mistake and one that is easily corrected with more information.

What is more troubling is that the power of stories can be wielded as an intentional force for causing harm. As economist Tyler Cowen observes, “There are people using your love of stories to manipulate you.” Marketers, for example, exploit our love of stories in order to get us to buy their products. Nike does not just sell shoes; it sells the story of heroism and overcoming odds. Robinhood does not just help users to trade stocks easily; through the story associated with its name, it helps amateur investors play out fantasies of robbing from the rich. This may all seem harmless, unless one becomes a sneaker addict, or unless one is a gullible investor who falls into debt and commits suicide. Then, there are cases in which marketers tell a good story to sell shady time-share deals, or when con artists tell a compelling story to scam the elderly out of their life savings.

In modern America, virtually all political and cultural conflicts boil down to competing stories.

But marketers are the most innocent example. Manipulation through stories happens at much larger scales at the hands of politicians, cult leaders, religious gurus, and mass media companies. Looking back through history, the greatest upheavals have been centered around powerful narratives about good vs. evil. The narratives often paint utopian visions for the future that can only be realized once a specific group of people is removed from power or eradicated. The Communist Manifesto is the story of an epic class struggle between the Bourgeois and the Proletarians. In order to create a better society, Marx and Engels call for the Proletarians forcibly to overthrow their oppressors. This document was used by many revolutionaries to incite mass movements, to overthrow governments, to starve or eradicate millions of people, and to justify brutal dictatorships. 

Beyond class struggle, an even more consequential good vs. evil story is one that involves God as the protagonist. Examples of wars and revolutions started over God stories are endless. There was the story by Martin Luther that led to the Protestant Reformation and three centuries of religious wars in Europe. In China, the Taiping Rebellion was a massive civil war led by Hong Xiuquan, who told the story that he was the brother of Jesus Christ. In the Middle East, religious conflicts that began thousands of years ago still underpin much political and religious unrest to this day. Radical religious groups and warlord demigods continually reference religious stories to justify the most horrible human rights abuses imaginable. 

In modern America, virtually all political and cultural conflicts boil down to competing stories. Headlines often bemoan the reality that our country has never been so polarized. This is another way of saying that people are being told—and are believing—different stories. Former President Donald Trump gained political power specifically by leaning into that polarization and by following the playbook of revolutionaries of the past: Paint utopian visions for the future (“Make America Great Again!”) that can only be realized once a specific group of people is disposed of (“Build the Wall!” and “Lock Her Up!”).

Political characters like President Trump are not typically analyzed as storytellers. But this is an appropriate analysis given the fact that humans naturally respond to stories. As Adam Gopnik writes in The New Yorker, “Everything—faith, science, love—needs a story for people to find it plausible. No story, no sale.” And, in fact, political pundits do occasionally write headlines such as, “How storytelling explains world politics, from Spain to the US.” The bottom line is that a compelling story may end up leading a lot of people to a terrible place, especially when that story comes from the mouth of a power-obsessed demigod. 

In his TED TalkBe suspicious of stories,” Tyler Cowen explains that, when we create stories, “We’re imposing order on the mess we observe.” This process ends up simplifying reality and converting it into one of several convenient, familiar narratives. So, we should be suspicious of stories—all of them. The more inspiring the narrative, the more suspicious we should be. When Jordan Peterson brings an audience to tears over a Bible story, we should be suspicious. When Malcolm Gladwell writes beautifully about broken windows theory, we should be suspicious. When a pop-science magazine writes about the latest finding from a behavioral science study, we should be suspicious. And when a reality television host becomes president and says the election was stolen from him, we should be suspicious.

The call to “be suspicious of stories” is not a call to throw out stories but simply to acknowledge that a compelling story is never a complete story. Life is inherently messy, and compelling stories are inherently clean. To be suspicious of a story is simply to remain somewhat agnostic about the conclusions of the story until one has investigated the hidden messiness.

Notably, great fiction grapples with this messiness, which is perhaps why it is widely considered such a force for good. The idea promoted by George Saunders that fiction elicits empathy towards others is backed up by data. And when Angus Fletcher documents different types of literary “inventions” that have helped humanity throughout the years, he is likely onto something, too. But the notion that stories broadly are always positive—that story is far too simple.

Peter Clarke is a freelance journalist in San Francisco. 

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