J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, January 13, 2012

“We should be suspicious of stories.”

And as long as I’m going all theoretical, I might as well quote economist Tyler Cowen on the danger of storytelling at an event unpronounceably named TEDxMidAtlantic:
I was told to come here and tell you all stories, but what I'd like to do is instead tell you why I'm suspicious of stories, why stories make me nervous. In fact, the more inspired a story makes me feel, very often the more nervous I get. So the best stories are often the trickiest ones. The good and bad things about stories is they're a kind of filter. They take a lot of information, and they leave some of it out, and they keep some of it in. But the thing about this filter, it always leaves the same things in. You're always left with the same few stories. . . .

There was a study done, we asked some people to describe their lives. And when asked to describe their lives, what's interesting is how few people said, "mess". It's probably the best answer; I don't mean that in a bad way. "Mess" can be liberating, "mess" can be empowering, "mess" can be a way of drawing upon multiple strengths. But what people wanted to say was, "My life is a journey." 51% wanted to turn his or her life into a story. 11% said, "My life is a battle." Again, that's a kind of story. 8% said, "My life is a novel," 5% "My life is a play." I don't think anyone said, "My life is a reality TV show."

Again, we're imposing order on the mess we observe, and it's taking the same patterns, and when something is in the form of a story, often we remember it when we shouldn't. So how many of you know the story about George Washington and the cherry tree? It's not obvious that's exactly what happened. The story of Paul Revere, it's not obvious that that's exactly the way it happened. So again, we should be suspicious of stories.

We're biologically programmed to respond to them. They contain a lot of information. They have social power. They connect us to other people. So they're like a kind of candy that we're fed when we consume political information, when we read novels. When we read nonfiction books, we're really being fed stories. Nonfiction is, in a sense, the new fiction. The book may happen to say true things, but everything's taking the same form of these stories. . . .

The point of a narrative is to strip it way, not just into 18 minutes, but most narratives you could present in a sentence or two. So when you strip away detail, you tend to tell stories in terms of good vs. evil, whether it's a story about your own life or a story about politics. Now, some things actually are good vs. evil. We all know this, right? But I think, as a general rule, we're too inclined to tell the good vs. evil story. . . .

Another set of stories that are popular - if you know Oliver Stone movies or Michael Moore movies. You can't make a movie and say, "It was all a big accident." No, it has to be a conspiracy, people plotting together, because a story is about intention. A story is not about spontaneous order or complex human institutions which are the product of human action but not of human design. No, a story is about evil people plotting together. So you hear stories about plots, or even stories about good people plotting things together, just like when you're watching movies. This, again, is reason to be suspicious.

As a good rule of thumb, "When I hear a story, when should I be especially suspicious?" If you hear a story and you think, "Wow, that would make a great movie!" That's when the "uh-oh" reaction should pop in a bit more, and you should start thinking more in terms of how the whole thing is maybe a bit of a mess.

Another common story or storyline - the claim that we "have to get tough". You hear this in so many contexts. "We have to get tough with the banks." "We had to get tough with the labor unions." "We need to get tough with some other country, some foreign dictator, someone we're negotiating with." Now, again, the point is not against getting tough. Sometimes we should get tough. That we got tough with the Nazis was a good thing. But this is a story we fall back upon all too readily. When we don't really know why something happened, we blame someone, and we say, "We need to get tough with them!" as if it had never occurred to your predecessor this idea of getting tough. . . .
How many of the stories of the American Revolution we hear take the form of good v. evil, a conspiracy, or finally getting tough? Basically all of them. After all, that’s how the two sides interpreted events for themselves.

I think there are some other archetypal stories in our standard accounts as well. But they all derive from the same assumptions Cowen points to here: that one trend is superior to another, that human intent drives events, and that something happened because someone finally wanted it hard enough. Of course, sometimes those things are true.


John L. Smith said...

J.L. - to exactly the point you're talking about is why I love the book series "Opposing Viewpoints in World History" and specifically their book of "The American Revolution". British & American points of view are given through essays, articles and letters written prior to and during the War for Independence. Feelings of Parliament getting tough on the rebels and Patriots getting tough on King George III abound, each expounding upon stories to make their point. But plenty of middle ground by both sides are also explored; enough to remind the reader that things weren't always seen as black & white, good & evil...even while it was happening in the 1770s.

SkinnyHistory said...

Loved the post. I agree that stories can be misleading. They leave stuff out. They have to. Reality is a complex, confusing, jumbled wash of subjects and objects, and when you're describing anything, or telling any story, you have to pick and choose what to include and what to leave out. But stories are what makes history so much fun! There has to be a way to keep the drama of history while telling the truth! There just has to. I think the trick is to include what's important (and not bend it for effect) and leave out what's irrelevant. Of course this is tough, if not impossible. My name is Charlie Stanford, by the way. I'm a history student who just started a history blog. I love yours and I'd love it if you check out my first post at skinnyhistory.wordpress.com. In it, I try to dispel another story most of us have come to accept. Thanks!