In an increasingly polarized world, we are being told a story that some people are clearly evil and should be fought with every means necessary. But what is wrong with this view? Why do we always fall back on black and white narratives?
I have for a long time been fascinated by humans’ need to tell stories. Throughout time we have told stories to entertain, make us think and transfer cultural knowledge. As an author and screenwriter to know this about our storytelling past has helped me greatly, even though my personal productivity sometimes leaves something to be desired.
The use of stories
Stories is, as some many people have said before me, the best way of illustrating a moral issue, philosophic question or conflict going on in the real world. It has often been argued that this is why stories need to be political, and I can see the argument for it. It is very effective for someone to portray something political, say immigration, through the means of storytelling. The empathy people garner from individual storyline is far greater than the ones you would get from just saying that thousands of people are flocking to the border. In fact, I would argue that the latter would leave people with a “barbarians at the gates” narrative.
Just picture a commercial from a non-profit. What do you picture? Very often it is a poor African child that is in clear pain, either from hunger or disease. Who wouldn’t feel a gut-wrenching punch at that kind of portrayal? They would never list the numbers until they had completed the story of the individual child and then they would list how one child dies every so-and-so second. This is an extremely effective way of using empathy through storytelling and non-profits know this very well.
To be fair, I have no problem with this. It is a great way of making an issue very clear for people and garner support, both financial and vocal. Who would not help, if they could, after seeing a child, completely innocent, covered in flies?
The problem is not there necessarily, but it is a sign of the problem. When you present a real-life story in a mythological coat, the innocent child who is the victim of an external source, you engage the built-in system that I believe us humans have to understand stories. This is a powerful tool that is used in more nefarious ways as well. Take a look at how a politician can use the same myths and stories that we love.
The national hero
The classic example is of course the engagement of Adolf Hitler in the role of the national hero, often connected to the mythical character of Sigurd Fåvnesbane, or Siegfried as he is known in German tales. A hero that kills a threat to the people. This has lately been taken up in the American scene as well. People on both sides are sharing memes, often in the form of photoshopped images, with the head of their favorite politician. Trump as the God Emperor from Warhammer 40k, Joe Biden as the Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars. The list is so long right now I will not bore you all with the examples.
These archetypes should be engaged in a very careful manner. Stories are not necessarily something that should be engaged with externalizing them onto what you see as good or bad guys in the world. It creates a simplistic way of viewing the world. Even if you are aware of the effect you start by doing this, the audience may not be aware of it.
Now I don’t want to come off as a moralistic person spouting what should or should not be done in an artistic manner. The creative freedom of anyone should never be infringed by me or any other human, but we should be aware of what we are doing as artists. The audience should also be aware of what is happening to them.
This externalization happens not only in pictures or visual media, it also happens in the written word. I mentioned in a previous essay how the typical Harry Potter fan turned activist, would use the dark forces in that series as an example of forces or groups in the real world. Anyone that disagrees with this person would then be labeled as part of the forces of evil. This is an even more dangerous and insidious way of the same effect.
We are storytelling beings, so this shortcut thinking is very alluring. I understand why it happens and what is going on. Bret Weinstein, the evolutionary biologist, has often said he believes that we have a religious system hardwired in our psychology and that this system has been an evolutionary advantage at some point. This got me thinking about what I have heard a lot of peaceful religious people often tell me when they tell me about the conflict between good and evil.
In the Netflix show The Story of God with Morgan Freeman, Freeman travels around the world exploring what the many religions of the world think of different religious aspects. The episode Search for the Devil was particularly interesting to me. In it Morgan Freeman meet preachers, imams and monks to discuss their views on the fight between good and evil. Several of them say the same thing when discussing the mythos surrounding their religion. The fight between God and the devil happens in every human. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it:
The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart…even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an uprooted small corner of evil.
I do believe that the system that makes us prone to religion is more based on understanding stories than necessarily anything else, even though we also have a need for rites and traditions that also are contained within religions. All of those start off as simple stories that we tell each other to understanding each other. They are often pathways into the minds of people living and dead, so they may contain inspiration from the outside world, just look at how George RR Martin has taken a lot of inspiration from history to his fantasy novels.
There is nothing wrong with using stories to explore conflicts and questions, but the problem appears when the reader exports the storyline to the outside world. Just look at how jihadists externalize the mythos to the outside world, seeing forces of evil in ordinary humans. Or, to represent both sides of this conflict, how crusaders would view their enemies as Satan’s horde occupying the holy land. Or the witch trials in Salem and other places in the Western world.
I think we first need to resolve the conflicts and the questions within, before we start pointing fingers to others as the devil. We need to start viewing the stories we love as reflections of the real world and more part of ourselves, the conflicts going on within ourselves or within the authors that we admire. And as authors we also need to realize the power we hold, that we should be aware that the stories we write can be used as tools in a game where no one wins.