Stories Matter

I’ve been having a number of thoughts over the last few days, and I haven’t been quite sure how to encapsulate them into a blog post, but today I watched a video by John Oliver on scientific studies, and they all seemed to converge at once. So here you go.

If you haven’t seen the video, you really should watch it. (Warning: language.) In a nutshell, he picks apart our society’s tendency to cherrypick the science we want to believe in. To reduce the complex scientific method into easily-digested nuggets that sound great but end up being wrong. (Ironically, at the same moment he objected to a statement that “people should just find the study that agrees with their point of view and listen to that,” I thought to myself, “That’s the way so many people treated religion back when I was a missionary trying to talk to people about religion on a daily basis. And as soon as I had that thought, Oliver said that the “pick your personal preference” approach wasn’t science; it was religion. But I digress.) Check out the video:

I’m not here to post about science today. I’m here to discuss stories, a principle this video helps illustrate. Our society runs on stories. Narratives. And we make changes to our views and our laws based on which stories capture the most attention. Sure, science can play a part, but it typically only does through as a prop to the story in question.

Take Global Warming, for example. You don’t have two scientific claims at war with each other. You have two narratives that are attempting to describe our present day situation. In one corner, you have the claim that changes we’re making to the atmosphere are causing long-lasting, irreversible harm to the environment. On the other, you have the claim that scientists are using incomplete or inaccurate data to make false conclusions.

Or politics: Trump is playing to a particular story. A story where America used to be this pillar of the world that was the epitome of all that was good and right, and that we’ve fallen from that pedestal by making a series of blunders. By listening too much to minorities and people who would prefer equality for all nations and people. That someone these forces are acting to sully our nation, and that he has a chance to Make America Great Again.

It’s a story. It doesn’t need to be right or wrong. It needs to be believed. And once people believe it, then what else matters?

One of the things I love about today’s technology is how it’s bringing us together. How it makes it possible for me to find out about what other people think on the other side of the globe. Social media has exposed a lot of bad (what your Great Aunt Zelda really thinks about Hispanics), but it’s also done wonders for me in allowing me to see and understand how other people think and what they believe. And (I hope), it’s helped me to better sympathize with who they are and where they’re coming from.

For example, Humans of New York uses stories to present snapshots of various people. It doesn’t need to make political claims or arguments. The stories make those all on their own. By understanding people, we understand issues. It did a fantastic job of humanizing the refugees in Syria. Turning them from a faceless problem that had to be taken care of in the same way as a chore you have to get through (taking out the garbage, cleaning up after the dog) and into a group of individuals who matter and need help.

The current debate and furor over transgender bathrooms is another example where two conflicting stories are attempting to explain a thorny issue. On one hand, you have people who believe transgender is a choice. On the other, you have people who believe it’s something that happens to someone. That it’s out of their control. (The same conflicting stories that happen in the debate over the causes of homosexuality.) To people who believe it’s a choice, it makes no sense to make accommodations for transgendered people. “They wanted to do that, so they can deal with the issues on their own.” To those who believe the opposite, it’s heartless and cruel to do anything but make accommodations.

In church on Sunday, someone asked “What can we do to see the good in others?” My answer was “Get to know them.” It’s easy to make decisions about what to do with people or to people you don’t know. I wrote about that just the other day.

The internet has allowed me to get to know many more people than I would have otherwise, and that helps me be a better, more understanding person.

I’m not trying to reduce everything down into simple stories, and I’m not trying to say that Truth doesn’t matter. I do believe there’s a thing as absolute Truth, and I believe it’s important to try and find it and make informed decisions in light of it. But I also believe that much of what people think of as absolute Truth, isn’t.

It’s stories they’ve heard and seen and experienced that have led them to conclusions that might be well-intended, but which might ultimately be wrong.

Back when Denisa and I were just married, she commented to me how envious she was of the cool stories I had from my mission. “Nothing like that ever happened to me on my mission,” she’d say. And that just isn’t true. I don’t think I walk through a world where interesting things happen to me and no one else. I believe interesting things happen to everyone on a regular basis. But some of us have practice distilling those events down into stories. The difference isn’t in the experiences, it’s in the storytellers.

What does this mean? Why am I writing this? I think it’s important to remember that stories infuse our lives and our society at all levels. Once you see and recognize that, you break some of the magic of the stories, true. But that’s not a bad thing. You make it easier on yourself to make good decisions. To not be persuaded by flash and glitter. Just because someone’s a good storyteller doesn’t make them right.

This is a tool you can use for good or ill. If you see something you want to get accomplished, create a story around it. A narrative. Make it a good one, and bringing other people to your cause becomes much easier. Trump knows this. Almost any national organization vying for attention or money knows this. People listen to stories.

In the Wire episode I watched yesterday (review coming tomorrow), a loathsome politician was found not guilty of crimes we all clearly knew he had committed. How did he get out of it? He created a story that explained how those crimes weren’t crimes at all. He came up with a narrative that justified what he was doing.

I could ramble on about this for a while longer, but I’m not of time. I don’t have a way to tie this all up and make it neat and tidy. It’s a thought. An observation. And hopefully it came through at some point in this post. Stories matter. Truth matters too, but sadly, stories often end up mattering more.

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