“Stories, to work, have to be simple, easily grasped, easily told to others, easily remembered.”
I’ve just finished reading the transcript of Tyler Cowen’s TEDTalk about the dangers of storytelling. A story, according to Cowen, is a means of simplifying complex phenomena, reducing the messy detail to produce something easily comprehensible. We seem to be predisposed by biology and culture to like stories; we react emotionally to them, we feel most satisfied with an explanation when it is in the form of a readily comprehensible narrative of actively opposed forces, with one side being the victor and the other the loser. It is not that stories convey no information – they in fact convey a lot of information; the problem is that they do so by leaving so much other information out. An emotionally satisfying story leaves out the complexities and ambiguities of experience. Some stories are certainly better (more informative) than others, and some stories are accurate, it is just that it is too easy to slip into accepting things because they are told in the form of a compelling narrative. I recommend reading the entire transcript (or watching the whole talk here).
Cowen’s thinking fits in with some of my own about complexity, order, and chaos. I believe that what we call chaos is simply the presence of multiple overlapping orders that we have difficulty making sense of. This is due to our own limitations rather than to the existence of any real chaos in the world. I think this can best be understood through an analogy to counting tasks. The simple orders we like make it easy to pick a start and end point for a count, while a chaos contains too many potential beginnings and ending points. Consider the task of counting jelly beans in a jar by colour (how many red, how many black, etc.). In their mixed state it is difficult to even begin the task, let alone carry it through to completion. However, if we take the beans out of the jar and divide them into piles by colour, they become easier to count. Much the same, I believe, prevails through the cosmos – the world has an order, in fact many overlapping and interacting orders, but we prefer simplifications and call chaos whatever is too complex for an easy explanation.
Storytelling is a good example of this complexity reducing. Again, stories are not necessarily false or wrong, they are just simplifications. Consider a complex event like the French Revolution. Many histories of the event have been written, each telling the same basic story with different details. It is possible for any set of histories told about the revolution to all be true, though they seem to tell different stories. This is because we distinguish History from the Past. The Past is all the events that have ever occurred, while histories are reductions of The Past to manageable form, tracing lines of causation between a select series of events, ordered by judgments of their relevance to one another.
One of the most common ordering elements in the stories we tell is intention, the wills of different parties interacting to make the story. The Villain seeks to do something evil, and the Hero opposes him. The Oppressed are treated badly by the Oppressor, but they get (or at least deserve) recognition. Rarely do stories told about major events focus on mistakes, accidents, and misinterpretations. We prefer our stories oriented around ideals like good and evil.* This is why it is so easy for many to blame big banks for the financial crisis, rather than trying to understand the more nuanced causes of the Great Recession – unscrupulous home owners taking loans they knew they could not afford, government legislation mandating that a portion of mortgage lending must go to the unqualified. Cowen warns us to beware of the “feel good” stories, the ones we find most satisfying. Stories closer to the real world portray messy events and loose causation.
I agree with Cowen that we must not let ourselves be seduced by stories. However, for explaining the world and human actions, this does not mean we can ignore the stories others are telling themselves. In The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam’s chronicle of the Kennedy administrations slide into
Vietnam, it is apparent that Kennedy and his staff had the history of Chamberlain and Hitler at firmly in their minds. They saw a situation where one country was being menaced by another and, imagining themselves in the position of Chamberlain, declared “never again”, ignoring all the dissimilarities between the two cases.* This is clearly a case where an overriding narrative, combined with another overarching narrative, the Cold War Communist vs. Democrat story, led to a bad decision. However, that story is only fully comprehensible when we understand the story the Kennedy administration officials were telling themselves. Similarly, to understand ethnic conflicts and the actions of states we cannot look simply at their economies or geographies, we also have to understand how they understand themselves. Thus an understanding of Russian history back to the time of Kievan Rus shows repeated invasions across the Eurasian Steppe into the Russian heartland, and the shaping effect this had on the mentality of the Russian elite. Thus the “aggression” of Munich cannot be understood as primarily expansionist, but in fact as defensive. It does not even matter if these stories are true, as long as they are believed. The stories about the story others are telling themselves are highly informative. Russia
*If you want to learn some histories that avoid the “story trap” I cannot recommend Halberstam’s book too highly – he does not pander to the reader with a good and evil story, instead it is a complicated account of hubris, mistakes, and blindness both wilful and accidental. The documentarian Adam Curtis is also very good at avoiding the “story trap”. His documentaries focus on the unintended consequences of human actions, rather than on simple morality tales. Both these historians do a lot of inquiry into the characters of the people they document, and show how their traits, which may have served them very well in some areas of their life, fail them when applied too broadly.