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Arts, Sports & Culture

Western Pennsylvania author says our love of stories is causing big trouble

Jonathan Gottschall
Ross Mantle
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Basic Books
Author Jonathan Gottschall's new book is "The Story Paradox."

Are we responsible for the stories we believe?

Jonathan Gottschall says we’re not. And he says that’s a big problem for society.

The Story Paradox book
Basic Books
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As the author and English professor argued in his 2012 book “The Storytelling Animal,” civilization is basically made of stories – not just the novels we read and the series we stream, but history, religion, and politics, too, are all fundamentally storytelling mediums.

Gottschall is a scholar of stories. In his new book, “The Story Paradox” (Basic Books), he explores a basic dilemma: The stories we love, and rely on to navigate the world, he says, “are the best thing in the world, and they're also the worst thing in the world.”

The former point should be self-evident from the huge amount of time we spent consuming stories and the vast sums we pay our favorite storytellers; shared stories are perhaps the strongest link in the chain that’s held societies together over the millennia. Gottschall, a Washington, Pennsylvania-based writer with a growing national profile, illustrates the latter point with a tragic example close to home: that of the shooter in the 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue, who was allegedly motivated by toxic anti-Semitic conspiracy theories online.

“It's this incredibly clear example of the way that stories can engulf our minds and drive us towards madness,” said Gottschall. “The book lays out what I take to be a sort of great law of history, which is that monsters behave like monsters all the time, but to get good people, decent people to behave monstrously, you have to tell them a story first. You have to tell them some sort of big lie, some dark conspiracy, some powerful religious or political mythology. And so the story paradox is simply this: That stories do a lot of good in the world, as no one doubts, but they're also at the root of our greatest ills.”

Gottschall, 49, is on leave from a teaching post at Washington & Jefferson University. He’s contributed to or been covered by the New York Times, Scientific American, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. He approaches the study of story through the lens of evolutionary psychology, the idea that human behavior developed in accordance with what was most advantageous to the species – and that it remains true to our origins in small bands of hunter-gatherers, even though the outward trappings of our lives are unrecognizably different.

Evolutionary biology, of course, has its critics, who note that it's not provable, and argue that it undervalues cultural influences. But to the extent that it's true regarding storytelling, it would explain a lot: For instance, why stories could keep small tribes working loyally together, but in complex and heterogeneous societies lead to suspicious, even hostile factions, each telling itself a different narrative of unity.

Across cultures, the stories that grab people are about trouble. (Seldom does one chronicle a perfect day.) And trouble is usually blamed on some villain or other: the living obstacle to the hero achieving his goal. As a narrative device, antagonists are amazingly durable, from “Beowulf” to “Avengers: Endgame.” But in Gottschall’s view, in real life, villainy can make for dangerous storytelling.

In “The Story Paradox,” for instance, he explores the world of conspiracy theories, from QAnon to flat Earthers. His conclusion: The people under the spell of those theories have bought into powerful narratives, complete with dastardly villains and a call to fight for the truth. Meanwhile, defenders of, say, an oblate-spherical Earth, have only the boring truth to offer. “It's just an asymmetrical fight, where you have the conspiracy merchants giving you blockbuster Hollywood-type stories, and the debunkers offering up PBS-style documentaries, which just can't complete compete in the marketplace of narrative,” he said.

Stories are so powerful, he argues, that though we start out telling them, then end up “telling us” – a form of what sociologists call “confirmation bias.”

“It would be pretty to think that we formed our narratives in a rational, logical way. We encountered facts about the world and we then organize those facts in our narratives,” said Gottschall. “I think it's truer to say it's the other way around. We start off with the story and then the story shapes and selects what we will credit as fact.”

Our need for villains "is not a recipe for social progress," he said. "This is not a recipe for the sort of political compromise that a democracy needs to actually move forward and function. What I fear it is, is a really good strategy for prosecuting a cold civil war of storytelling that threatens every day, every year, to escalate towards something much worse."

Gottschall advises those who would demonize anti-vaccine conspiracy types, or adherents to the "Big Lie" of a stolen 2020 presidential election, to look in the mirror.

One of the things that was sort of a nightmarish possibility for me when I was writing the book … was of my readers, sort of curved over my pages, happily ticking off all the ways that my arguments apply perfectly to all the people they don't like and all the stories they don't like, without even thinking of turning that skepticism around on themselves and on their own narratives,” he said. “The problems of narrative psychology, humans’ built-in vulnerability to well-told stories, is not a ‘them’ problem. It's an ‘us’ problem. It's an everyone problem.”

As social media and other digital enablers increasingly allow people to live inside their own custom-built narrative silos, the risks for society are becoming more dire. Gottschall cited the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, footage of which many Americans see as a document of treason, precisely where others perceive a patriotic uprising.

But in “The Story Paradox,” the kicker is that Gottschall contends no one can take either credit or blame for the stories he or she buys into.

“People are no more to blame for the smart or dumb stories that fill their heads than depressions in the earth are to blame when they fill up with pure or fetid water,” he said. “We can't help what stories engage us. … Our genetics influence it. It’s about a 30 [percent] to 50 percent genetic influence on whether we're a Republican or a Democrat. The kind of family we grew up in influences the kind of culture we grew up in influences and these things were sort of beyond people's control.”

Following this evolutionary-biology train of thought, Gottschall contends in “The Story Paradox” that free will is an illusion. In history, he notes that only with rare exceptions did Americans of the antebellum South renounce the Confederacy, or Germans of the 1930s fight Nazism. The stories they were told, he says, were too strong, and the consequences of rejecting them too great. And he contends that contemporary people who think they’d have rebelled under those circumstances are probably kidding themselves.

Given that, can we change? Is there a way to make stories do the good work of uniting us again? Gottschall says we must.

“We need to try to generate empathy, not just for the victim of the story, but for the villains too, to say to ourselves, ‘You know what, there's been a lot of misbehavior throughout time. But when it comes to the bad guys of history, the inquisitors, the genocidaires, the conquistadors, there but for the grace of God, go we,’” he said. “If we were born into their shoes, and if we had their cultural inputs, there's every reason to believe that we would have sinned as well.”

How? New storytelling models are needed, said Gottschall – models that overturn millennia of storytelling tradition by shunning villains. In “The Story Paradox,” he doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but he cites hopeful examples including Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2006 film “Babel.” The ensemble drama, starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, and Gael García Bernal, told a series of interlocking stories.

“For me, ‘Babel' was the great example of a story that had masterfully shown how it was possible to tell a story without any bad people in it,” said Gottschall. “And by the end, the movie is sort of obsessed with horrible predicaments for all the characters from beginning to end. They're all facing life and death problems, but there's no bad people causing it. It's just, you know, it's as likely that good people are causing. They did something careless, they did something kind, and it created this sort of butterfly effect of suffering.

“‘Babel’ was really inspiring to me because it drove home for me very powerfully that this was a more realistic way to tell stories, and that we could consider transferring this whole model of storytelling across the whole spectrum of the stories we tell from the political stories we tell to the ideological stories we tell to the histories we tell.”