His talk was compelling enough that I promptly read his book as well. Like Gottschall, I’ve done some pondering about Plato’s long ago warnings against the power of the written word back when I did a nerdy deep dive into the roots of close reading (“Close Reading: The Context of an Exigesis“), so this idea that storytelling can be a double edged sword resonated with me. And his warnings about the dangers of storytelling, particularly through social media, seemed an important part of the puzzle of the rise of Trump, the far right, and QAnon, amongst other phenomenon such as anti-vaxxers during this turbulent age dominated by Facebook and Twitter.
Gottschall’s warning is that stories have a great power over humanity: we are deeply compelled by stories at a subconscious level, and while stories can broaden our horizons and capacity for empathy, they also — by nature of the narrative dynamic of a villain and a victim — leverage in-group and out-group divisions and can dehumanize those we perceive as those in our “out-group.” One of the key findings from research Gottschall cites is that the dramatization of stories reliably beats argumentation based on facts every time. We are all too easily compelled — and manipulated — by the storytelling we consume on a daily basis in the form of media, tweets, comments, podcasts, etc.
While I found this intriguing, I wasn’t quite sure what to take away from his warnings against the dim underbelly of storytelling — until today.
Three things brought it together for me:
- I happened to listen to a Fresh Air podcast interview by an author, Nicholas Confessore, who has written a book on Tucker Carlson, and learned that Tucker Carlson is a major force on cable news (I neither watch cable, nor the news, and have never listened to Carlson, so this was news to me) and furthermore learned that continually returns to a major theme in his monologues: that of the the “replacement theory,” which posits, basically, that white people are being replaced demographically by non-white people through immigration and liberalism.
- The horrific shooting in Buffalo, NY the very next day, in which the shooter was a white male incited by that very theory.
- Seeing this tweet from Petter Buttigieg:
Suddenly, it clicked.
Gottschall’s book was sparked by the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh by a white male shooter who was convinced Jews were “invading” the U.S. and “killing his people.”
In both his keynote and in his book, I was struck by Gottschall’s ability to portray the shooter not as a horrific monster, but rather with the grim but ultimately empathetic understanding that this was a man who believed fictional stories about Jews.
This is the the powerful undertow that stories can have when we believe them without critique, when we see others believing in them, too, and we begin to perceive ourselves as part of the in-group that the stories include as its heroes and victims, and vilify the out-group that are its villains.
Gottschall warns that “when we villainize someone, we dehumanize ourselves,” and that is no more apparent than in the case of human beings who have become mass killers.
Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions that Gottschall can offer us to combat this, aside from generalities such as teaching critical thinking, or reducing the stories where we are the good guys and others are one-dimensional villains.
But it does beg the question, given all this talk about “freedom of speech”: where is our freedom from being manipulated? Where is our freedom from being shot when shopping, or praying, or listening to a concert, or sitting on the train, or walking down the street?
We are like moths drawn to flame to the stories we see and hear and tell on our smartphones, and our social media, and our likes and our lurking and trolling and posing and signalling.
How can we innoculate one another against the stories that simplify and demonize groups of people, and embrace stories that individuate and complicate our understanding of ourselves and one another?