Useful Fictions, Part IV - What's Your Story?

Pink Car Bunnies MetaphorI rambled recently about the stories we tell ourselves in relation to the various ‘urban legends’ surrounding important moments in American history, then got even more carried away discussing the evolution of folktales – something I’m completely unqualified (but nevertheless entirely willing) to do.  I even managed to begin a discussion of proper “historical fiction” awash in my own brand of blogorial brilliance.

And I’m sure it will.

Because “historical fiction,” properly asserted, uses the freedom of fiction to suggest or magnify historical reality. It seeks to increase understanding and comprehension and connection, not obscure it. Generally, its writers care deeply about fact.

That’s the twist ending, you see – after all the talk of fable and distortion – that this power can be used for good and not evil. To elucidate rather than obscure. No wonder that post – if it ever happens - is going to scintillate.

The thing is, there’s one other form of narrative and ‘fiction’ that’s picking away at the edges of this discussion. It’s a type of packaging that gives order and meaning to events on a more personal level. It’s a form of story structuring that can provide a useful framework for handling complex information, or bind us without conscious recognition it's even there.

Frustrated WomanPerhaps you or someone you love are familiar with popular inner narratives such as…

“The Legend of the Frustrating Spouse Who’s Probably Never Going to Change So I Just Have To Bear My Cross and Deal With Him/Her.”

“Snow White Intentions and the Little Lies That Never Hurt Anyone.”

“The Story of the Woman Who Got Fatter and Older No Matter What She Did.”

“One More Step: How Real Happiness is Just a Few More Accomplishments Away.”

Oh be careful little mind what you think – words have power, and stories have lots of words.

Jonathan Haidt is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia who writes extensively about the elements which make up our social and political selves. He contrasts two ‘narratives’ often adopted as unspoken paradigms of the ‘left’ and the ‘right’:

French Revolutionhe "liberal progress narrative"… goes like this: "Once upon a time, the vast majority of human persons suffered in societies and social institutions that were unjust, unhealthy, repressive, and oppressive. These traditional societies were reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation, and irrational traditionalism.... But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality, and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression, and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies.

While modern social conditions hold the potential to maximize the individual freedom and pleasure of all, there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation, and repression. This struggle for the good society in which individuals are equal and free to pursue their serf-defined happiness is the one mission truly worth dedicating one's life to achieving."

This narrative… should be recognizable to leftists everywhere. It's a heroic liberation narrative. Authority, hierarchy, power, and tradition are the chains that must be broken to free the "noble aspirations" of the victims…

As previously discussed, the stories we tell ourselves both reflect and shape our realities. Thanks to the wonders of Confirmation Bias, once we adopt a narrative – consciously or un – it becomes increasingly unlikely that subsequent experience or information will dramatically alter that narrative. 

That’s problematic enough if the narrative involves Hanson or people who drive pickup trucks, but far worse if it’s about that irresponsible brother-in-law you see on holidays or that neighbor who you suspect keeps taking stuff people leave outside. And it’s not just the lefties:

Modern Old WestContrast that narrative to one for modern conservatism… goes like this: "Once upon a time, America was a shining beacon. Then liberals came along and erected an enormous federal bureaucracy that handcuffed the invisible hand of the free market. They subverted our traditional American values and opposed God and faith at every step of the way.... Instead of requiring that people work for a living, they siphoned money from hardworking Americans and gave it to Cadillac-driving drug addicts and welfare queens.

Instead of punishing criminals, they tried to 'understand' them. Instead of worrying about the victims of crime, they worried about the rights of criminals.... Instead of adhering to traditional American values of family, fidelity, and personal responsibility, they preached promiscuity, premarital sex, and the gay lifestyle ... and they encouraged a feminist agenda that undermined traditional family roles.... Instead of projecting strength to those who would do evil around the world, they cut military budgets, disrespected our soldiers in uniform, burned our flag, and chose negotiation and multilateralism.... Then Americans decided to take their country back from those who sought to undermine it."

… general plot line and moral breadth should be recognizable to conservatives everywhere. This too is a heroic narrative, but it's a heroism of defense. It's less suited to being turned into a major motion picture. Rather than the visually striking image of crowds storming the Bastille and freeing the prisoners, this narrative looks more like a family reclaiming its home from termites and then repairing the joists.

Imagine the exponential power of some of our most popular narratives if left unexamined:

“The Story of the Damned Liberals Who Just Want To Destroy America and Unleash Further Perversion on our Children.”

“The Parable of the Psychotic Rich White Guys Who Cackle Maniacally Whenever The Environment is Damaged or Minorities Suffer.”

“The Epic Adventure of the Universe That’s Out To Get Me No Matter What I Do Because I’m Just Cursed I Guess.”

Others are closer to home:

“Ode to the Sweet White Girl Who Never Gives Me Any Trouble In Class.”

“The Case of the Kid Who Acts Like a #$%@ & the Seething Resentment I'm Sure I Hide Well.”

“Kids These Days: A Tragic Comedy About a Generation So Lazy There’s No Real Hope, But We Just Keep Trying To Teach Them Anyway.”

“The Teacher Who We All Know Isn’t Sick That Often and is Way Too Informal With Her Kids and So All We Can Do Is Roll Our Eyes and Make Jokes About Her Behind Her Back.”

That last title is a bit long – I may need to work on that one.

Devil & Angel On ShouldersSometimes our narratives do more than interpret or preserve information.  Sometimes they cleverly replace what actually happened with more cooperative "facts" in order to maintain themselves. They then roll merrily along reflecting and shaping our values and worldview - with or without or conscious consent.

It matters what we tell ourselves, and others, and it matters even more if we’re not aware of and examining our narratives. What stories ARE we telling ourselves? What paradigms shape our understandings of history, or others, or ourselves? 

Stories circumvent logic, and even choice, if we don’t pay close attention. Let’s make an effort to be aware of the narratives already woven into our psyches and how they shape each day’s puts – both the in and the out. We have them about the world around us and the people in it - and they have them about us. Wouldn't it be fascinating to truly share?

Related Post: Useful Fictions, Part I - Historical Myths

Related Post: Useful Fictions, Part II - The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Related Post: Useful Fictions, Part III - Historical Fiction... Sort Of

Related Post: Useful Fictions, Part V - "Historical Fiction," Proper


I love this one, I really do. It's the tongue-in-cheek overstatement which gives you that oddly and slightly embarassed blush of self-recognition. I want to think about this some more. I know there is more here for me. I'll need to give it another read. Thanks!


Add new comment