The Stories that Guide Us

We humans are a talking breed. Language and story are inextricably mixed, and it seems clear that the stories we tell eachother around the campfire—the narratives of our lives and imagination—are what define us as moral and ethical beings.

Life provides us with various types of existing narratives. There are the stories of our childhood, the teachings of religion, the tales of heroes. We learn from these what it is to be good, true, courageous, loyal, stalwart, cunning, indomitable, kind. We hear how to rise from defeat, how to withstand trial, how to protect others, and how to sacrifice ourselves when all else fails.

And most of all, we learn how to judge behavior—our own and everyone else’s. We explore what it is to be a coward, to be the object of shame. We internalize these judgments, and that helps keep us from shaming ourselves and makes us reliable and trustworthy members of our communities. As the stories tell us, there are always people who fail to live up to these standards, as we do ourselves from time to time, but at least there is a general consensus about what we’re aiming at, or trying to.

But that was then.

We have been meddling unthinkingly with the stories we tell ourselves for a couple of generations now. And we’ve been reaping the whirlwind, ever since WWII.

It began in the modern era with the receding of traditional religions. Whether or not you can believe in a God (a judgment of the intellect), the stories of traditional religions were in general alignment with older human stories. At its foundation, Western civilization itself is a blend of pagan and Semitic narratives about what makes a man good and the duties men owe to eachother.

The status of religion in civil society was a victim of both the cult of “cool” and the well-meaning desire to live and let live with one’s neighborly unbelievers. That need not have been fatal—after all, the narratives of Christianity, for example, are widely echoed in literature—but other more serious trends came along.

Firstly, the common egalitarianism of American society has given way to a narrow seeking of status and justification from a secular elite class. Instead of learning the broad stream of stories about what gives life meaning and making independent judgments based on that, people have turned to elites for approval, as if they were the new priests of a new religion. They proudly embrace condescending status markers of “see, I believe what all good people believe”, which carries the implication “If you believe differently, you are bad people”. This loss of empathy with your neighbors is a form of religious shunning.

Healthy religions would have you try to convert the non-believer by engaging in a dialogue which requires a minimal level of empathy for his position. If that doesn’t work, well, life is long and perhaps your neighbor will change. Meanwhile, common courtesy requires you to treat him as a neighbor with whom you share other human and civil concerns. Unhealthy religions prefer to just eliminate the unbelievers, by any means necessary. Eliminationist rhetoric can now be found everywhere.

Secondly, the fire of intellectual curiosity, which should inoculate against the blind acceptance of received opinion, has been largely eclipsed by a superficial mastery of “technique”. Anyone can pride himself on his ability to “make an amusing video”, “pass along a meme”, “produce a well-formed advertisement”, “link to someone else’s (high status) opinion”, and so forth. The content of the material is often a lesser consideration. The currency is popularity and admiration; the moral or ethical considerations are irrelevant. Religions would call this a false pride—the packaging is not the idea.

The devaluation of actual expertise on a topic—that which is necessary to defend an opinion—has removed any shame from refusing to bother defending a statement. It is enough to refer to “what the high-status elites say”, with its implied insult that “if you don’t agree, you are dishonest or stupid (or both)”. The notion that it is possible, and required, to lay out defenses for an opinion, from primary sources, seems to have vanished, along with any suspicion that “high-status” and “intellectual justification” are not necessarily related to eachother. Just because a celebrity opines something doesn’t mean it’s worth taking seriously.

Nothing is more common than to lay out an objection to an opinion by citing data and presenting a reasoned argument and to be met with a “yeah, so?” response. The modern facility with manipulating the tools of media has become more important than the arguments themselves. You cannot reason with those for whom reason is unimportant.

Thirdly, there is no concept of any period but the present, or any history with relevance. The eager surrender of the educational system to emotional and feel-good subjects has effectively removed all data from the curriculum. How can one learn from history if one doesn’t learn history in the first place? How can one learn the traditional stories, including the foundational religious ones, if one cannot read at least the formative literature that echoes them?

How can you teach anything, if you’re afraid of offending? How can you become educated, if you refuse to be shamed by your ignorance?

The denial of reality in education is the enemy of our traditional stories. Our culture’s stories tell us how to live; the wish-fulfillment stories in our educational systems tell us nothing about the real world, and how properly to live in it. An education which confirms the student’s ignorance is no education at all.

We humans learn from the stories we share with eachother. The useful stories that reflect the real world and teach us lessons that keep us alive survive and are retold. The others—the ones that are lies or that glorify bad behavior or that try to impose a false reality—those stories kill us, like a slow-acting poison.

It matters what stories we tell.

Oh, yes, it does.

12 comments

  1. I pendantically observe that historically most religions did not try to convert. The rule was that everyone follow the customs of his father

    1. “customs of his father”?

      Might be mother, but in the current era Christians, Moslems and Buddhists all tried conversion.

      1. Current era.

        And even nowadays there are religions that you can’t convert to. Zoroastrianism, for instance.

  2. Philippians 4:8
    Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

  3. And for a somewhat tangential question on the stories we tell each other, I’ve got more questions on how women talk when the guys are not around.

    I know women seem to talk a lot more about relationships and prospective relationships than guys do, but I’m wondering what sort of limits and bounds there are.

    I think I’ve got the scene in my head mostly right (the characters know of each other but neither friends nor associates, and have really been opponents through most of this, so unsolicited personal advice, even if good, is not met with approval.) but I’m wondering what usual rules are, if any?

    1. There’s no simple set of things, in my opinion, that sets female-to-female conversation apart, but here are the some I consider as typical in such conversations, in various contexts…

      1) Commenting with each other in camaraderie (or thinking to themselves) about patently obvious things that the men on scene often don’t seem to notice (two different channels of communication).

      [“Did you see the look she gave him? Do you think he understands what she’s looking for?” / “Nah, they never do.”]

      2) Volunteering a confession of a flaw to the benefit another woman in hopes of disarming her. (It seems to be harder for men (on pride grounds) to do the same.) This can be either social grease or conniving, depending. When it’s genuine, it can lead to shopping expeditions of the “ooh, that looks good on you” variety, as a form of bonding.

      [“I’ve never been able to sing like that. How do you manage it?”]

      This can be a variant on the female-to-male “ooh, I could never lift that, you big strong man, you.” but that ploy is done for an entirely different purpose…

      3) Patiently untangling the unstated relationship clues of other people’s conversations or behaviors: explicitly, for the benefit of male auditors, or humorously/professionally for female interlocutors who can hear much more of that channel for themselves.

      [“Well of course that was never going to work. Her sister would have spilled the beans to his wife the minute her finger could find a dial. Didn’t you know they were roommates in college?”]

      4) To sum it up, most women seem to understand female and (most) male behaviors far better than most men do the reverse. Women respond to this apparent truth with incredulity (on behalf of the men), with humor (internally or to other females), or with confusion (if they’re really dumb or inexperienced or blinded by vanity). It’s not that women understand men’s specific “lived experience” any better than the reverse, but that they seem to be better social observers and more comfortable extrapolating from the clues they get. (*)

      On the other hand, they can be blindsided by male behaviors that are not necessarily modifiable by verbal means. [“Shut up and kiss me.”]

      (*) This is why women can discuss real or potential relationships so easily. It’s partly the thrill of the topic and the ease of letting down one’s guard socially (2, above) if in friendly company, and partly the satisfaction of exercising a relationship interpretation/prediction skill with (female) listeners who can appreciate it.

      And don’t underrate the use of such a conversation between (female) enemies to mislead them, and the pride in one’s skill at being able to do that. When women fool men that way, men resent the dishonesty when detected. When they fool other women about men that way, the victim feels both professional chagrin at having been fooled (she should have known better), and a significant desire for revenge by turning the tables.

      YMMV

      1. I can definitely see that. For men, relationship discussion tends to consist of either “Dude, she’s totally into you” (only right about 25% of the time. Half the time, the guys are pranking each other, and half of the time they aren’t, they’re just wrong) and “My name’s binit and I ain’t init.”

        I know the only reason I know those characters have the personality types to work well together is because I built them from their personality types, so I generally know what they need. (She’s an idealist, he’s a philosopher king type. Their moral code align, and they’re both the sort of people who forgot they had bodies. So of course the character who can never forget she has a body is going have that set her teeth on edge. Plus, no-one else is supposed to know they’re in contact, so power move.)

        Now I just need to get that blasted war built so I can explain how they get between point A and point B…

  4. I’ve noticed that oftentimes the modern retelling (remake in movie terms) changes the focus of the story. While the first time around the story will emphasize point A, the retelling seems to almost always emphasize point B, or C, and barely touches on point A.

Comments are closed.