Jonathan Gottschall, THE STORY PARADOX

Here’s a nonfiction book from 2021 that I read just a couple weeks ago. It’s similar in heft to the two books just discussed, in terms of length and conceptual depth, perhaps somewhere in the middle below Wilson and above Ahn. This is the book I noted a while back because it got a killer review in the NY Times a couple years ago, noted here. I’m not going reread that review; just respond to the book myself. Mostly.

Subtitled “How Our Love of Storytelling Builds Societies and Tears Them Down” (Basic Books, Nov. 2021, 258pp, including 64p of acknowledgements, references, notes, and index.)

It seems to be a rule these days — though it’s easy to think of similar examples from decades ago — that nonfiction writers leaven their serious messages with anecdotes not just about others, but from their own personal lives. Wilson did; Ahn did; and here Gottschalk does. (Actually, that’s one thing Snyder complained about; oops.) In terms of conceptual value for the reading effort, this one is closer to Wilson than to Ahn.

This is a companion to the author’s earlier book, THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL (2012), which I reviewed here.

Rather than summarizing chapter by chapter, I’m going to reread my notes and just compile key points. As always, personal asides are noted in [[ double brackets ]].

    • The author opens (personal anecdote!) with visiting a bar, getting drunk, and noticing that everyone in the room was flapping their mouths. What was that all about? Why do people talk so much? His revelation: it’s all about “sway.” People trying to persuade others to their point of view. For any number of reasons. [[ I have to say I’ve often wondered the same; as mostly an introvert, I’m baffling by what people need to talk about with each other, incessantly. ]]
    • The central idea: stories are an essential poison; necessary, but poisonous in some circumstances. This is the story paradox. You always find some story behind every one of humanity’s greatest ills. So the question is: can we save the world *from* stories?
    • Discussing how “the storyteller rules the world,” he makes this point I hadn’t seen before. Our inner voices, “the great loquacity,” is always with us; it won’t shut up. In that sense, maybe stories *are* escapist, not from our problems, but from ourselves.
    • He goes into some detail about Plato’s The Republic, a perfect city in which, for one, storytellers would be banished, as dangerous. He understood that story is the main tool for controlling and shaping human behavior.
    • So Plato would have run poets out of town and banished emotional storytelling, censoring or trashing lots of books, including Homer. He also advocated a kind of communism, engineering by philosophical supermen, with all stories under state control. He was right that totalitarian regimes all try to control their stories. With prominent examples being church dogmas all the way to modern Christian nationalism.
    • Thus historical wars are almost always about Storyland: the struggle to impose one narrative above all others. It’s not about what’s superior (or objectively true); it’s about what propagates. Thus our modern world of fake news and confirmation bias.
    • The most contagious stories ever told are the gospels of Jesus, believed by almost no one at first, until they became the official religion of the Roman Empire. (Author cites titles by Bart D. Ehrman here, of which I’ve read at least one.) Christianity’s spread benefited from high birth rates and vast epidemics, by storytelling and missionaries, and by intolerance. It was a present-tense religion; followers expected the end of the world at any moment — so convert now!
    • Conspiracy theories aren’t theories, they’re conspiracy stories. Example of the story that the Earth is flat–the brainchild of a 19th century quack doctor. This and others are like quasi-religions, resistant to discomfirming evidence. We’re attracted to whatever is the best story of the moment, and by the same token our minds can’t deal with a whole class of problems that happen too slowly: like climate change. All these conspiracy stories are about bad people and bad tidings. The conspirators are always monsters. Conspiracies of goodness are bad stories. We’re driven by a negativity bias. Storytellers pay attention to it.
    • A chapter on the “universal grammar” of stories identifies two key components: stories are about characters trying to resolve predicaments; and that stories have moral dimensions. Stories, like human nature, have a negativity bias, alert to danger. Good news makes bad drama. Stories are about the abstraction of justice; in religion, nobody gets away with anything. [[ This is the just-world fallacy of course. ]]. These ideas may seem simplistic, but they go way back, to basic observations about the hunter-gatherer life: keep the band together; don’t be selfish. At the same time, people compete to get ahead. Thus villains are selfish and exploitative.
    • Stories may not always have simplistic morals, but they are usually moralistic. History’s scolds have been conservative types; liberal storytellers promote multilayered moral views, opposed to conservative morality. [[ precisely the theme of mine here… ]]
    • Chapter 5, “Things Fall Apart,” summarizes the problem. If stories can be said to evoke empathy for people different from the reader, the flip side of this is that it invokes enmity for the other side. Someone must always be the villain. Author cites Alex Rosenberg’s How History Gets Things Wrong [[ yet another book I have but have not read ]] to claim that historical storytelling is not only wrong but dangerously so. They focus on the negative, on heroes and victims. Their myths at best are “grand and noble lies.” As with the American myth of American exceptionalism. This myth was replaced by another, in the 1960s, that America and Europe before it were a monster civilization that overran natives to ‘conquer’ the world. Neither narrative is true; at best they’re each half of a larger story. Just as we have now in current politics.
    • Is there a way to resolve this? To tell history without villains? The answer might be to consider that morality proceeds as often from luck, as from character... The Nazis were people just like us, but driven by a particular story. Similarly slavery. To understand this will require some amount of “empathy for the devil.”
    • Chapter 6, “The End of Reality,” emphasizes that we can’t help thinking of the world in terms of stories; narratives have *us*. Understanding this is part of the realization that humans aren’t as rational as we like to think. After all, what is reason “for”? Perhaps merely to rationalize our arguments (stories) to others. Perhaps some of those cognitive bugs are actually features. [[ Shermer and Pinker have both made this point. ]] Here’s a nice paragraph to quote, p154.6:

      Narrative is for making sense of the world. And it does so by simplifying the world. All narrative is reductionist. And once we have a narrative that’s giving coherence and order to our existence, we typically defend it with half-blind vigor. To lose one’s special narrative is like gravity suddenly switching off and meaning spinning away. This is a nauseating feeling, and most of us go through our lives making sure it never happens. We do so by devoting our mental resources not to testing our narratives but to protecting them.

      Thus MAGA, religion, nationalism.

      [[ Here is where I can note that science, philosophy, and science fiction are about, at their best, attempting to side-step such narratives in order to perceive actual truths about the reality in which we live. Not just stories that shore up our tribal instincts. ]]

    • Most people live by stories they *inherit*. Or live among people driven by the same narrative. Thus different people can watch the same events and perceive different stories. (Example: Jan. 6th.) Another example of how we have less free will than we think; we don’t choose our political orientations so much as acquire them, or are acquired by them.
    • It was evidence that lifted us out of the Dark Ages, into the Enlightenment. But we’re leaving that behind, through social media, in which people consume stories individually.
    • So the new hero is the Big Blare. One of the most successful storytellers in world history, aside from the ineptness of his presentation. His story is MAGA. (Author acknowledges he is deliberately not speaking Big Blare’s name.)
    • Solutions? Not to assault stories. But to strengthen what counterbalances them: the logistikon; science. Finding out which narratives about reality are true and which are false. This has already been happening to a degree, how Democrats outnumber Republicans in mainstream media and academia (at the risk of getting hung up by their own dogmas about gender, race, and sexuality).
    • We might be facing a Democalypse, in which AI deepfakes take over the world, ending liberal democracy. Democracy was a Greek experiment for a while, and then again after the Enlightenment. Yet authoritarian systems have been more common and stable over the long run of human history. Example of China, which has been able to sculpt a national storyverse to control its citizens, along with total state surveillance. Perhaps that’s what most people prefer. The problem is that different societies will live in mutually incompatible matrices…
    • Author concludes with a call for an interdisciplinary effort to understand narrative psychology. To gain control over our biases.
    • And with three rules, a call to adventure:
      • Hate and resist the story;
      • But try hard not to hate the storyteller;
      • And, for the sake of peace and your own soul, don’t despise the poor sap who literally couldn’t help falling for it.


Concluding thoughts, in no particular order:

So, are there villains? Are any people truly “evil”? Perhaps those who, without intentionally intending to do so, believe that the world is black and white — good and evil. By believing so, they’re not helping; they’re creating the problems that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

Obviously, the themes here align with my observations about how intuitive physics is wrong about the world (outside a person’s immediate experience), leading to everything from the satisfaction of hearing spaceships zoom through space in movies, to belief that the earth is flat. And even more generally, the difficulty of overcoming the narrative bias, and understanding the world and universe as it is.

Stories help bind tribes and societies together; they become problematic when they clash with real-world realities, and with the stories of other societies. That is, as humans create problems they need understanding of the real world to solve, and as human culture becomes global.

The themes here echo my current thoughts that perhaps democracy, and science, have been passing fads in human history, destined to give way to authoritarian regimes and their “stories.” Which might indeed create stability of human societies over the long-term — well, no, of course they won’t, according to history, since past authoritarian regimes have given way to other things in one way or another — but might explain why humanity will never become a global society that can solve problems, let alone expand into space and establish an interstellar society, as in the dreams of science fiction.

The basic theme here about the primacy of stories challenges notions about the value of science fiction. That is, science fiction has some explaining to do. Can science fiction do nothing more than translate basic human conflicts into outer space, or into alternate histories instantiated into cultures other than the white male European-derived culture of most 20th century science fiction? (This is the view of a certain Facebook science fiction group leader, who thinks science is nothing more than a modern-day mythos.) I think the very best of science fiction can; this is a key point in the essay I wrote for Gary Westfahl. The most popular science fiction, especially the franchises of Star Wars and Star Trek, does not. Yet if the best science fiction *can* see around the biases of human nature, how does it do so? How do such science fiction ‘stories’ work? Here is a puzzle I haven’t quite solved yet.

Once again, most people don’t *care* about the reality of the world; all they need is a narrative and a community that shares that narrative to support them.

Are humans destined to be only what we’ve already become?

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