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