The eternal power of stories

The other day my mother told me about something that she said used to happen but doesn't anymore. It was people taking stories too seriously and thinking that on-screen villains were bad people in real life. She told me of having read in film magazines of her youth how Hindi cinema's "negative" actors got treated with fear and suspicion by people who didn't know them in real life. If, for example, someone played a smuggler or rapist repeatedly in films, people were likely to hate them for it unconsciously.

After my mom had blown my mind with this little nugget, it was my turn to blow her mind. She didn't believe me when I told her people still do this. They still message actors who play villains on screen and abuse them for the actions they perform as part of the story they were tasked with telling.

Two things become apparent. One, that we always think the present is better than the past. We think that people get smarter and more moral with time. Second, we think that stories are real or at least that they are close enough to reality to be treated as real. Both assumptions are demonstrably wrong. But I want to focus on the second one today. I want to talk about why the human mind is so vulnerable before stories, be they fairy tales, science fiction, religions, or political narratives.

A brief history of narratives

In the earliest of times, human society was essentially tribal. A group of people who came to live next to each other, mostly for agricultural reasons, but also because hunting in groups was easier. But along with shared work, came the problem of sharing resources. Land had to be shared, food had to be shared, labour responsibilities had to be adequately distributed. All this necessitated negotiation. People had to talk to each other in order to reach conclusions.

Along with such talk, came many reasons to disagree. Everyone wants more and society cannot sustain never-ending demands from each individual. So a solution was found in group identities. If an individual could be convinced that he had a responsibility towards the group that was more important his responsibility towards himself, people could be manipulated into making compromises that they would not make otherwise.

This is how the first religions came into being. They were stories designed to sustain community. They turned individuals into characters of a story. They told you that there is more to you than what seems to be apparent on the outside. They told you that you and your neighbours were created by one or more invisible beings with a specific goal in mind. They told you that the resources you were fighting over were not for your private use alone. They were for the betterment of the group.

The narratives of now and tomorrow

The tactic proved so useful that it was improved upon. In later iterations of the story, the individual was told he had to agree to more rules. Rules such as those corresponding to social divisions based on caste, class, skin colour, and income. In modern multicultural societies, there are even stories that seek to control how the individual treats people from other cultures and religions. The group identity, be it religious, cultural, nationalistic, or corporate, always uses stories to enforce unspoken codes of conduct.

To get where they are, the human animal took an evolutionary path that necessitated storytelling. Stories guide the course of human civilisation and as such, we have always been programmed to take them seriously, even when they are intended only for entertainment. Every religion is based on stories. Every cultural practice stems from a story. Every nation state, every allegedly ancient culture, all forms of governance came along as a result of some well-told stories.

Because tens of thousands of years have passed since the first story was told to keep a tribe from breaking apart, and because storytelling as a way to build and maintain really large groups is an eminently replicable technology, these days we have conflicting narratives fighting against each other in a struggle for civilisational dominance. We have religion fighting religion, ideology fighting ideology. the fights we see on the ground, in the tangible world among people are all fights among people who think they are characters in those stories.

Religious people think their stories are actual history and they are the descendants of the people mentioned in their stories. And when someone challenges their story, they grow agitated and either seek to prove their challenger's story false, or take up arms against them. Modernity is basically the struggle between new stories and old stories. If you have a visual imagination, imagine invisible giants fighting each other against the backdrop of a cityscape and the sunset, vying for dominance like a Kong or a Godzilla.

Invisible giants at war

Stories are, and have always been, bigger than us. The human mind is incredibly vulnerable before the power of stories. Historically, this has had good as well as bad consequences. People have died honourable deaths in service of stories and people have committed horrific atrocities in the name of stories. None of this means that the power stories have over us is a good thing or a bad thing - just that it is a very real thing. And that what we do with it is up to us, just as what we do with our arms and legs is up to us.

One of the sadder aspects of modern education that I never tire of talking about is that the Arts - fiction, painting, storytelling, and music - are thought of as unimportant or impractical. In reality however, they are the building blocks of all that humankind has today. And going forward, they are going to be equally (if not more) important. The study of stories can shed vital light on a lot of contemporary problems. Conscious and virtuous use of storytelling can create better futures, especially for those who were made secondary or tertiary characters by some of the very first stories humankind told itself.

The very first stories told women they were less important than men in social orders. They told people with certain skin colours that they deserved to be subjugated. They relegated those of certain genders that they were not to cross certain boundaries. All these stories have defenders and believers even today. But at the same time, new narratives, new stories with new characters are coming into being all the time. They aren't winning all the battles (because the old stories are still way more massive on account of age and size), but they aren't losing all the fights either.

Our vulnerability to storytelling may be evolutionary, but so is our ability to process stories and understand the mechanics of how narratives shape society. We will probably always struggle to tell the difference between reality and imagination, but we don't have to let go of the opportunity to use this struggle to our advantage and build a more equal future for everyone.

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