Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Beware of Stories


When I was in 8th grade I heard a really great motivational speaker who warned about the danger of stories. He talked about how powerful stories are to us, how entranced people can become by them, and how ultimately dangerous a good story can be sometimes.

He talked about Jim Jones and his promise of utopia, and Hitler, whose narratives led the world to its darkest moments in history.

I wouldn't say that as a society we're necessarily more susceptible to stories than we were in the past -- humans are humans after all -- but modern storytelling methods, delivered by the Internet, are breathtaking in their immediacy and power.

We have instantaneously available videos, shared to us and discussable within minutes. We have first-hand accounts delivered as soon as they can be uploaded. When these stories have gauzy (and often fake) authenticity of amateurism and the weight of mass approval behind them (look how many times this video has been watched!) it's easy to be swept along for the ride.

I was reminded of that motivational speech this week (though obviously on a drastically smaller scale) when it emerged that This American Life was forced to retract a story about Apple's Foxconn manufacturing facilities due to inaccuracies, and filmmaker behind the Kony 2012 viral video was proven to be, at best, a seemingly troubled individual, and at worst, someone who encourages "slacktivism," whose charity's finances have been questioned, and who could reinforce pernicious stereotypes and actually make a complicated situation worse.

What these episodes have in common is that they prey on idealism and human compassion, emotions that are best stirred through storytelling. Facts are complex; reality is messy. Storytelling strips the elements that don't fit the narrative and reduces life into something more comprehensible and stirring. There's some truth there, sure, but the full picture is way more complicated.

These are very different situations, but both of these storytellers have taken real problems that absolutely deserve our attention and ended up undermining our focus.

When stories are mistaken for truth, intentionally or unintentionally, it's so easy to be misled, which is why Mike Daisey's "falsehoods serving a greater truth" argument never works for me. If there's a grain of truth within the story, why not shine the line on that?

Stories are amazing, they give meaning to life, they help us understand the world. But it's easy to be led astray.

Art: Pied Piper by Kate Greenaway






35 comments:

Matthew MacNish said...

Well said. I knew from the get go something wasn't quite right about the whole Kony 2012 thing, but I had no idea it went this far.

Mr. D said...

People are quick to believe the stories they WANT to hear.

Stephanie said...

I knew from the title you were going to talk about the Mr. Daisey story! That retraction was a fascinating bit of journalism, especially how they managed to get Daisey on the air. I couldn't believe nobody said the word "truthy." But I don't think it's fair to lump the Kony campaign in with Daisey's outright lying. The criticisms of Invisible Children have been along the lines of "oversimplification," not outright lying, and the cause appears to be pretty solid. Check out the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof KONY2012: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/15/opinion/kristof-viral-video-vicious-warlord.html

Hektor Karl said...

There's a disturbing trend in which writers want the flexibility of fiction, but the prestige/resources/trust/attention that a 'non-fiction' label brings.

Then 'story' is used as a shield against criticisms, as if that word forgives everything from bad analysis to exaggerations to straight inventions.

Maybe we need a wider use of the old 'Based on a True Story' thing used in TV movies...

Carmen Webster Buxton said...

Did you happen to read this NY Times article on the benefits of reading fiction?
Although of course, this assumes we KNOW it's fiction.

London Crockett said...

This is one of the best takes I've seen on the Daisey scandal, Nathan. Thanks.

Beth said...

Great post, Nathan.

Laurel said...

The worst thing about this trend of sensationalizing reality to the point of falsification is that people stop believing true things are true.

Although I don't know that this is a "trend." We might just have so much more access to easy fact checking that it's harder to get away with it.

L. Shanna said...

Excellent post, so true. It's sad when the storyteller is used as an excuse to ignore the story, which I'm afraid is what will happen with the Kony 2012 thing.

Heidi said...

Well said as usual, Mr. B.

Andrew Leon said...

The ability to differentiate the "true" story from the fictional story is, unfortunately, lacking in many people.

Neurotic Workaholic said...

Your post made me think of the people who write memoirs about events that didn't actually happen, or they take "creative liberties" with the truth. I think it's okay if they actually are up front about the fact that the stories are not completely factual. But when you take a case like Mike Daisey who refuses to apologize for the fact that he presented his story as 100% true (and only later admitted that it wasn't), naturally readers are going to be less willing to read any more of that author's stories or listen to what he has to say. But on the other hand, it's like you said; it's possible that although the situation at those Apple facilities are not as bad as Daisey made them out to be, you do have to wonder exactly how the workers are treated. And I think it's so much easier to focus on blaming Daisey than a major company like Apple.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I was hoping to mention the "Neuroscience of Reading Fiction" article, but Carmen Webster Buxton beat me to the punch!

Stories are dangerous. And they should be. Judgement, that's something that each individual needs to have, paired with a reasonable suspension of disbelief. Nobody likes being outright fooled.

kimberlyloomis said...

Wonderful post. The Kony 2012 thing has had me so frustrated for reasons the article you posted doesn't even get into. Oversimplification, in my opinion, is putting it kindly. Before I babble on about that overmuch let me just say thank you for this post. :)

Livia Blackburne said...

Coincidentally, I just wrote a blog entry about how stories can cause people to take on "story-consistent" views. The more engrossing a story is, the more likely people will agree with the themes and world view.

Anonymous said...

It happens to authors, too. Once a story starts, it take a life of its own and never goes away.

Kristin Laughtin said...

It is very easy to be led astray, especially as, given the instant dissemination of stories that is possible with the Internet these days, people feel more pressured to respond before a story becomes "old" or the information changes. For many individuals, that pressure to act immediately, especially when their emotions are high, leads to a decrease in due diligence and they don't investigate the story or its source as fully as they should. Much of the time, that just means pausing for a moment and doing a little research.

It's easy for a storyteller to lead readers/listeners astray, but it's also important for those readers/listeners to do their part so they are not so easily led.

Marilyn Peake said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly! I also think we’re living in a time when people want to dwell on distractions. I’m not sure why. It may be that the world is so full of serious problems, most people feel too frightened and paralyzed when faced with the full reality of those problems. For example, I agree that it does more harm than good when Mike Daisey’s accounts turn out to be partially fiction; but it disturbs me so much more when Mike Daisey’s stories become of greater concern to the public than the reality of people working under inhumane conditions at Foxconn. Here’s one article about those conditions and the fallout from the Mike Daisey controversy: Chinese Labor Activists Are Terrified That Foxconn Will Come Away Looking Good. And, of course, those who want to see Foxconn continue to operate the way in which it does can use the liar Daisey stories to take the public’s focus off of Foxconn. The amount of bickering about minutiae while ignoring real-world problems that goes on both in the news and on the Internet is mind-boggling at times. I think that, if we learned how to acknowledge falsehoods while simultaneously turning more of our full attention and energy to solving the real issues, we’d be able to change the world for the better and solve many of the world’s most serious problems.

Also, while we get swept up in arguments about minutiae, it’s really easy for those in power to script stories that get everyone distracted and bickering while actual laws are being changed that affect us all. Those who control the language surrounding an issue end up controlling the issue. We’d have a much better world, I think, if people truly heard the stories about horrific situations and worked at changing them, becoming much less distracted by issues only tangentially realated to those situations. And that’s where the serious storytellers play a crucial role, if people will listen – storytellers like John Steinbeck and Upton Sinclair.

Anonymous said...

Didn't we just go through this with Greg Mortenson?

RLS said...

Great post, Nathan, however using the link to the Slate story about Jason Russell was an unfortunate choice. The NY Times quoted a police spokesperson as saying that if Russell had been intoxicated they'd have arrested him--instead they took him to a hospital for what was almost certainly a psychotic episode. The police also noted that of all the calls they received about an anonymous man’s behavior (i.e. Russell)—only one mentioned that Russell MAY have been masturbating, yet, many newspapers reported that Russell was arrested, intoxicated and masturbating. Many people (some even brilliant and talented) are diagnosed with mental illness. For many, medication enables them to lead lives worthy of their potential. The best case scenario is not as you suggested: a seemingly troubled individual (with a link to an inaccurate article). The best case scenario is that Russell receives medical treatment and gets back to work—hopefully responding to the public’s criticism and then resuming artistic/activist endeavors. Or better yet, let his next film project take on the pervasive stigma related to brain chemistry—a.k.a. mental illness.

Mirka Breen said...

You mean to say that stories MATTER?!?
Yup. With you there.

Lisa Cron said...

I could not agree with you more. And even more frightening is that there's an entire segment of our society that uses stories purely to manipulate us: advertisers, marketers and politicians. Their goal is to use story to make us feel good about ourselves by using their product, or voting for their candidate. This is explicitly stated in every book on the use of story in marketing (and there are many). And, since we’re wired to respond to story, we tend to fall for it every time. The even more frightening thing is that we have no idea we’re doing it.

Look around your house. Chances are you bought just about everything you see (even Fido) because while you weren’t looking, a clever story snuck in and persuaded you to. It’s not because we’re easy to boss around, but because a well-crafted story speaks first to our cognitive unconscious, which marketers hope will then translate it into something conscious, like: It might be midnight, but I really do deserve a Big Mac; Gee, she looks so happy, I wonder if I can get my doctor to prescribe that pill; It’d sure be fun to have a beer with that guy, I think I’ll vote for him.

Scary, huh?

Anonymous said...

Some stories are bad and some are good. Some stories are true and some are false. Why do we have to be negative and site worst case scenarios. There are some good stories, even if they are fiction and some are true, even if only for a moment.
I love stories. Stories make the world go round. Imagine there always reading reality, facts, the truth of the matter is...without any stories.

Humans beings just have to make a choice how they want to treat others before or after the stories. We are not zombies and then again sometimes we are.

abc said...

I'm jealous of your 8th grade motivational speaker experience. All we had were people that showed us black lungs and a one armed volleyball player preaching against smoking pot (cause you couldn't play volleyball with one arm if you were high, though I beg to differ).

This is a wonderful post and its message is something humanity needs to consider more often. We also need to be careful of buying into the stories we create as individuals, as well. I remember the day of the Columbine shooting and how quick folks were to concoct a story about two goth kids with messed up parents. Not even close.

wendy said...

Your comments on the power of story and, also, the negative side of false stories are admirable, Nathan.

TerinTashi Miller said...

Yes. Speaking as a 30+ years professional journalist, as well as part-time fiction writer, there is a difference between stories that purport to be true, and fiction.

It's why, at least among newspaper and wireservice colleagues when the terms "new journalism" and "creative non-fiction" came into being, we labeled both "new" forms "lying."

You can be creative and still tell the truth, or even, in fiction, things that are perhaps truer than people are normally willing to admit or verify or confirm.

But you cannot change, tweak, fudge, or otherwise manipulate the truth and call it journalism, or reportage, or documentary, or even history.

That people are getting caught in their lies is in my mind a GREAT sign.

Thank you for the not-often-enough repeated warning. And a similar warning would be: don't believe everything you read, see or hear. If you're moved enough, look into it.

As we used to say: "If your mother says she loves you--check it out!"

Criticus said...

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Just as in the book age you couldn't believe everything you read, in the internet age you can't believe everything you view or like or friend. A little bit of skepticism is always in order.

Amanda said...

LOVED this post. Very well-written and brilliant advice.

K. C. Blake said...

Wasn't there also a story done on radio at one time that everyone thought was real, something about aliens attacking? People got hurt, if I remember right. Yes, stories are very powerful. They can change lives and view points if told in the right way. It's amazing.

The Desert Rocks said...

I guess this must be why I don't understand how Hunger Games can be the number one book for over a year? Parents buy this stuff about teens killing each other on television and give it as gifts to those with impressionable minds!

Daniel McNeet said...

Nathan,

What you see is an illusion, it is what your opponent, the writer, wants you to see.

Mira said...

Great post, Nathan. Stories are so powerful.

I admit to being frustrated with Daisey. I think his intentions were probably very good, and he brought an extremely important issue to the forefront, but how could he be so naive? Did he really think he could expose exploitive labor practices of a corporation worth over 300 billion dollars, and they wouldn't try to discredit him???

In other words, they wouldn't create their own story about him?

I thought alot of the comments were also really interesting - Livia, I loved your post - and it really speaks to how influential authors can be. Story is very powerful, and this does raise the issue of the ethics of being an author.

I know that many think the story should reign King, but I don't agree. I think when you are in a position to influence the hearts and minds of the reader, there is an ethical responsiblity to do this in a way that reinforces what is good and best in human beings.

Authors rarely see the impact of their books, which can lead to the illusion that there is no real effect. But, as you point out, Nathan, there very much is. And we don't talk about this enough. Which is one reason I really appreciate this post!

Roxanne said...

When the story questioning the veracity of Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea broke, the Rumpus published an excellent piece on the limits of truth in memoir. Among other issues, the piece argued that often those stories are false because we will them to be true. Sadly, they are not.

That said, as I argued in my own recent piece on Kony 2012, we need to treat these storytellers with compassion. Critiquing their product is necessary - particularly in the field of post-conflict development - but the snark that has been prevalent in the discussion is not constructive.

Helen W. Mallon said...

Excellent post. We also tell ourselves stripped-down personal stories featuring judgments of ourselves & others that can be really harmful. This urge seems to run very deep in the human race.

Alana Roberts said...

I tend to think of written fiction as a specialized, abstracted form of drama. Drama, in turn, I think of as a telescoped version of some real trajectory in human affairs. Yes, eating spinach every day will probably make you stronger than not, all else being equal. Dramatizing this fact means "telescoping" the process so that Popeye can't beat up his rival before eating the spinach but now, after eating it, he can. All the other events of the story are worked around this telescoped truth so that they are impossible in everyday life. What remains true is the original truth that was dramatized.

As sophisticated readers I think we have to understand which elements of a story, movie, or stageplay, are telescoped truths and which are convenient conceits built around the the form that truth takes after it's been telescoped. We aren't supposed to believe that everything in a novel is "realistic." We are supposed to have our passions, fatal tendencies, and foibles purged by seeing them whole - and our aspirations, ethics, and honesty strengthened by looking them in the face.

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