Thursday, August 17, 2023

Why ‘storytelling’ sucks

The Story Paradox, by Jonathon Gottschall, will disturb you. It is taken as a given that stories are a force for good. That is the orthodoxy, especially among the supposedly educated. But what if the truth is that they are now a force for bad? Are we being drowned in a tsunami of stories from TED Talks, YouTube, TV, Movies, Netflix, Prime, Disney, Social Media, education and workplace learning? Could it be that they distract, distort and deny reality?

We love stories but only the stories that confirm our own convictions. We seek out those narratives that tell us what we already believe, retell and reinforce them, over and over again. And maybe the most subversive story of all, is the one we tell ourselves, over and over again, that we are right and those other storytellers and stories are wrong.


Technology has given storytelling an immense boost. Social media is often a storytelling device for amplifying stories you love and attacking those you hate. Movies are often morality takes reflecting what the audience already believes and years to believe – like Barbie. Box sets are consumed in a series of 6-13 episodes, then subsequent series released. Streaming services have exploded with Netflix, Prime, Disney, HBO and many others. They have huge amounts of archived content and release more than any individual could consume. We live in this blizzard of confirmative storytelling.


It is common in my world to hear people extol the virtues of ‘storytelling’ from people who want to sound virtuous. Everything’s a story, they claim, almost philosophically, except that is bad philosophy. Bounded in the nutshell of narrative they flounder when that narrative hits any serious philosophical challenge, such as ‘What do we know? or ‘What is real?’ Epistemology or ontology are hard ideas and of little interest to storytellers. What they actually do is often parrot the fuzzy echoes of bad French philosophy which sees all as narrative.


I used to think this was just the mutterings of the philosophically challenged, until increasing numbers of people, nay large portions of the society I live in, started believing their own narrative about narratives. You really are your lived experience, we’re told, (except for those whose stories don’t count, like the working class). Your gender is whatever narrative you choose, so here’s a pic ‘n mix of genders and dispositions. And by the way you must also use the pronouns I use in my story or you will be exposed as denying the truth of my ‘story’. This is not just the tyranny of narrative, it is the tyranny of the author demanding the reader and speaker comply to their fictions. Of course, language, supposedly their handmaiden, doesn’t work that way. No matter how hard you try, most people don’t use the terms, as language is use not imposed imperatives.


Even worse, children will be given stories about what choices of story they want to live in. These used to be called Fairy Tales but rather than warn children of the dangers of wolves in sheep's clothing or the dangers of being too judgemental or trusting, they are being encouraged to see such stories as a menu of options, even if it means serious and irreversible medical intervention. Being a drag queen is no longer seen as little more than a pantomime dame, but a lifestyle.


Suddenly, and it was sudden, we are drowning in narratives. Science and reason were consumed in the fierce bonfire of storytelling. The conceit of calling 2+2=4 a story, is quite something. Of course it opened up all sorts of weird narratives on both the right and the left, although each side claim immunity, their respective narratives being true in the eyes of their respective tribes, the others fictional conspiracies. And there’s the rub. Madcap ideas, such as there is no biological sex through to QAnon are all permitted in the la la land of storytellers. That’s the consequence of this belief in Santa Clauses. We get infantilised by narratives.


The world as stories or the storied self are inadequate theories, as they are what Popper called universal theories, you cannot deny them as your critic will just claim your critique IS storytelling. That is BS and here’s why.


It started in the 1960s with Barthes ‘Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives’ and has been gulped down by those who are actually too lazy to read French Philosophy and prefer second hand narratives to thinking for themselves. Bruner was the equivalent in psychology, with ‘The Narrative Construction of Reality’. To be fair, Lyotard was rightly suspicious of post-Enlightenment grand narratives (although the French bought into them, philosophy and intellectual thought being a matter of fashion). He was right on Freud and Marx. One super narrative, used and abused by Marxism, that people can be sliced and diced into the oppressed and oppressors has been plucked from the literature, the dying remnants of dialectical materialism, and taken as gospel. I thought that Hitler and Goebbels on the right, and Stalin, then Pol Pot on the left had put an end to that meta-narrative nonsense. But no, it was resurrected, wrapped up in Foucault type obfuscation, none more absurd that Judith Butler’s queerness, the very triumph of philosophical naivety, where everything is a performative story. Facts are trampled on and trumped by narratives, giving anyone permission, Trump being a master iof the art, to say what they wanted, even to lie. The narrative turn in society turned out to be a rebounding and dangerous boomerang. Worse still, it is an intellectual cul de sac.


Life is not a story. Socrates was right, the stories and narratives we tell ourselves are usually the stories and narratives others have told us, especially those of the storied self and identity politics. You can see that in people who invariably have the same religion as their parents or adopt the lifestyle of their peer groups. In a world where stories are all that matter, peer groups with consistent narratives become all powerful. It is the sign of a closed not an open mind. Wallowing in storyland is not to think for yourself but to think tribally. Stories have shifted from being humane tales we tell each other to socialise, comfort and amuse ourselves, to something sinister, something akin to weapons of abuse.


Stories often bore me, especially backstories, or elaborations in advertising or learning. Columnists with their cosy tales of comfortable conceit. Every article now begins with an anecdote and ends up as a bad sermon or parable. Politicians push the story of the day. Marketing gurus like Seth Godin banging on about telling lies, sorry stories, in marketing.


Even worse, educators see themselves as storytellers. Every training course has to be fronted or supported by the crutch of storytelling, so you get tedious narratives about how Peter, Abigail and Sophie have a unique spin on the Data Protection Act. Click on the speech bubble to see what Alisha thinks about Data Protection. Really?


Everyone has a novel in them, so the story goes, but they don’t, so that genre has descended into the self-indulgence of characters you must ‘like’ telling stories you ‘empathise’ with. Pop music has become a bland sewer of bad storytelling lyrics, teenage doggerel, albeit in perfect pitch through autocue. Storification has become so inflated that it has smothered art. If you donp;t conform, as a comedian in the Edinburgh Fringe, the venue will now cancel you on the whims of some students who work there. 

The trouble with reliance on stories is that they tend to become beliefs and dogmas, then those with strong convictions make convicts of the others who want to tell other stories, even if they’re satirical or straight up funny. It has happened repeatedly in history with Fascism, Communism, Dictatorships and Theocracies. They will always come up against the cold reality that the world is not a story, certainly not the story they believe in.


In the beginning was not the word, it was the world. The world is not made up of stories. It was around before us and will be around after we are gone, along with our conceits. End of story.

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