🪟 3 - The potency of stories
Frame & Axiom #3
Table of contents
Solutions of right framing (note: as it appears to me)
The potency of stories
I am sure you have noticed each axiom builds on top of each other, though they can also stand alone. Something like a TV series. This is to keep it true to form, as I mentioned in the preface that these axioms are meant to be read as fragments of a book, and thus have been written as such.
Before the idea for this weekly series of axioms came about, my primary goal for reflecting on and recording my own axioms was to uncover a prime intersection in my dataset, where some of my consciously treaded paths intersect on something hopefully profound. I felt there to be something profound, by my own measurements, that lay somewhere deep within the obscurest recesses of my mind. It is ironic to think that something can lay so deeply within while also laying so far ahead.
Having now drafted 25 axioms (as of writing), it is difficult to say whether I have landed on the prized intersection, although I have achieved some clarity and a number of eureka moments along the way (that is the beauty of writing). This is also to say, I feel I am starting to hit the limits on how I see the world. I am chancing upon the precipice of my dataset, a point at which I can go no further, which thereafter lays an unintelligible expanse of blackness where everything yet to be known resides. What I can say is that I am pleased with everything I have recorded thus far, and it is certainly reflective of the current state of my worldview, albeit filtered by my own measurements.
Of all axioms drafted, one of the most important paths down which my conscious worldview runs is rooted in the potency of stories. Even prior to conceiving the idea to write this series, this road has been the most novel and has kept me most mentally preoccupied. Here in this week's axiom, I lay some foundations for how I interpret the world through the lens of stories. The excitement of thinking through this led me to write much longer than I normally would. But I am so excited to get to share all this with you.
The potency of stories
Children Watching TV (2006) by Katie Miller (Source)
Sesame Street was a staple of my childhood. I have fond memories of waking up at 9 in the morning, clad in singlet and shorts, and hurrying my mom to switch on the family TV so I could watch it from the couch. Elmo, the loveable red creature, was always friendly and comforting. Whenever Sesame Street was not showing, I recall enjoying Clifford the Big Red Dog or Art Attack. Scrolling through my mind's eye, I realised — no wonder my favourite colour since childhood is red! Perhaps I have come to associate it with the feelings of comfort and friendship.
This was a short-lived phase, however, and my attention came to be gripped by the excitement of movies. I particularly loved Disney’s animated Lion King and Dinosaur. God only knows how many times I rewatched those. I was still very young, perhaps aged 5 or 6. My memory records no conscious thoughts at that age, but it does clearly the grip of a captivating story. I see clearly in my mind’s eye the life of those films. They were surreal. The only barrier separating them from the reality of my surroundings were the edges of the TV screen.
My teenage years saw a somewhat stereotypical progression, as I outgrew the singing lions and came to love the genius superhero in a tin suit firing laser beams. I recall imagining myself as the Iron Man — acclaimed hero of humanity. Over time, by way of the wonderful world wide web, I learned of even more powerful beings in the comic book universe, and my attention gravitated towards them. I especially loved learning of those otherworldly beings, the gods of the comic book universe, benevolent or otherwise, who exude awesome power. Perhaps the contest of power manifested itself not just on their fellow fictional characters, but also on myself as a reader. A familiar pastime was to scour the web for interactions between those beings and our more modest earthly heroes. These images form my recollection of much of my developmental years.
I am by no means unique. We all grow up enamoured by stories and the excitement of their colours, the vividness and the state of otherworldliness it induces. From the youngest of ages, adults expose us to all sorts of children’s stories, capitalising upon our capacity to be influenced by them. Perhaps it is no wonder then that the affinity to be critical of stories lies untrained in us as adults.
As young children, where nigh-everything was still unknown, we were told stories to give us a sense of the world we have been born into. Perhaps one could say, stories inducted us into the norms of the world and helped us assimilate. Our parents and teachers looked to children’s stories, and those stories birthed the embryonic dataset in an intentional direction, purported to grow ideal citizens of society. Now, even as adults, we do not outgrow stories. We only outgrow children’s stories. When stories become familiar, they cease being able to grip our attention, and hence we seek out new categories fit for our datasets, such as history and mythology. Correspondingly, the intention to develop ideal citizens of society by way of storytelling never really ceases. Those stories only come to include the non-fictional and real — we are presented narratives by way of social media, the news, and the content we consume. They all play the same role, that is, they induct us into the norms of the world and help us assimilate.
But there is a reason why stories are the messaging medium of choice for us as children, and also as adults. Simply put, stories grip us. They tempt our attention and have the ability to stamp a stronghold within our memory. Stories, or narratives, are immeasurably powerful — so powerful as the mighty heroes and gods within them. Let me attempt to explain.
Within stories and narratives lie the most convincing form of data. It is the narration of everything sayable and unsayable — the habitual, the unknown, the terrible, the beautiful. It usurps the guards of our own minds and is able to reshape forms across time and space. A story is data in aesthetic dress. Sometimes the data is dressed up, and other times it is yet to be undressed down to the mystery that lies beneath. No intelligible data escapes its purview, for even that which we cannot yet conceptualise can be contained by it. It is antecedent to art, for it is more than the flair and expression of data, but rather when data itself becomes poetic. They appeal to the depths of our unconscious. They persuade us to impose a particular order upon the unknown (as they do much more clearly to children, but the process never really ends).
As adults, when our field of intelligibility is expanded to cultural limits, stories and narratives captivate when they articulate the unsayable. The most captivating, provoking and pressing stories articulate something of the infinity of what has been left unsaid and is felt only remotely. This is the space where language itself feels insufficient, where there lies not a clear set of words to express something. It is the land of the mysterious and unknown — where ethereal concepts such as right and wrong, consciousness and purpose reside. It strikes even upon that which is innately understood but perhaps better left unsaid, such as our deep capacity for malevolence, as told through history and mythology, and which has since been brought into collective light by Freud. Stories impose order where our datasets fall short. If only we used stories simply as a logical aide! For better or worse, we are deeply and innately susceptible to them, for their ability to grip and persuade corresponds to our deep affinity to impose order on the unknown. Yet there is a certain light in that, for it grants stories the power of the gods, and with it contains a correspondingly infinite capacity for beauty.
Stories can be beautiful, as is poetry, but the flip side of beauty is that it can manipulate. Where our individual and collective datasets fall short, we often too easily lend our trust to the narratives presented to us. What they help to do is fill the gaps and impose order upon the mad multiplicity of events. A burdensome multiplicity of events, at that. The thing is, human nature is wired for coherence and not truth, and thus we are prone to such manipulation. The art of storytelling is also a skill, and it is also not common that we are exposed to the narratives of storytellers who possess a sufficiently sophisticated dataset in a given context. When I speak of such a dataset, I allude to an ability to articulate what I would normally call a ‘level-headed take’, where the storyteller knows fully his own side of the case but also all opposing sides of the case, as prescribed by John Stuart Mill (one of my favourite quotes of all time). The ease of manipulation via stories and narratives is why I tend to have little patience for opinions motivated by something inconsiderate in nature, like anger and smugness, as opposed to the consideration of interests (of the categorical variation in datasets) and putting forth of a rational argument. I am certain that we are many times more susceptible to manipulation than we suppose. As Charlie Munger says, "someone who knows how to take advantage of those shortcuts [in the perceptual apparatus of man] and cause the brain to miscalculate in certain ways can cause you to see things that aren't there."
More often than not, the popular stories are told by storytellers who are trained in the art of telling stories, rather than the art of seeking truth. It makes sense, for storytelling is not an easy weapon to wield, and hence a worthy profession in itself. A tremendously important and powerful weapon to wield, at that. But that means the minds who make up the stories often have as deficient a dataset as we do. If those stories have to do with serious matters, we simply come to see things as they do. Some stories become more popular and capture the feeling of the crowd, and they simply lead us to see things as most do. We are at the mercy of them. As written in the Bible, "death and life are in the power of the tongue" (I would include the pen), and to which Spiderman might add, "with great power comes great responsibility".
The thing is, the popularity of stories is not reflective of truth, but of what grips us. That is the perils of popular opinion. Let alone allocating them too much trust, or too much benefit of the doubt, we often accept stories that are coherent with our dataset without even a hint of doubt! Clearly, narratives warrant some doubt. Narratives can grip us, and ultimately be worked out to be bad framing. It is not even so black and white as that, for things can be correct on many levels. A practical improvement and a utopia can both be ‘correct’. Popular narratives form a stronghold upon one part of the whole, most commonly the grandiose utopia, which lead to errors of judgement. The captivated individual proceeds to judge the whole on the basis of a part made potent.
It is rational therefore to exercise extra precaution with any and all narratives presented, for one can tell the same story in a thousand different ways, and the chance is it can be correct in more ways than one. I think the most reliable stories narrate in a manner that is most considerate of all reasonable categorical datasets, and addresses them on the deepest conceivable level. But how does one contain so much data and yet dress such complexity in a still-captivating form? It is an unspeakably difficult affair. Many religions have managed this feat, and thus it maintains infinite power over the ages.
The defence might be that the potency of a story over another indicates truth — but I doubt that is really the case. Again, effective stories are representations of what grips us, not reality itself. We all know stories and narratives thrive off sensationalism, for example. No one pays heed to what is normal or merely incremental. We wish to be shocked, we wish to fear, we wish to be infuriated. Those are the stories that grip us. The stories we are fed are not representations of reality, but representations of what grips us. Who would read a story on incremental progress? Who would read a story on what is working? Most things that are working are by definition, not news, and therefore less noteworthy. Who wouldn’t read a story of heroics and villainy? Who wouldn't read a story on what is not working? Who wouldn’t read a story of regress, oppression, for example, and the tyrannies of those we are taught to despise — our politicians?
While to me this is true — that was a narrative I deliberately framed, especially in that last bit, to antagonise the news and media. But as is the case oftentimes, there is more to it. Namely, it is that it is unreasonable and untenable to be framing the storytellers as our mortal enemies. Rather, they are simply amplifications of the biases we are all innately inclined to. But, I think we ought to pay attention to that. I have found it useful to frame the news and media, and consequently, popular opinion as perpetuated through those mediums, as not just a source of truth but also a source of stories. This is the same reason why history tends to feel Sodom and Gomorrah-like. Depressing. Harrowing. They describe in full detail the stories of war, of conquerors, of villains and genocides, of oppressors and injustice — because such narratives grip us. The traitor grips us more than the loyal servant. History books are also storybooks.
It is no wonder then that we need correcting narratives, such as in Hans Rosling's Factfulness, Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist, Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, for example, to reassure us with quantitative facts that the state of the world isn’t quite so apocalyptic as the captivating stories make it out to be. If only numbers gripped as strongly as stories did! We would achieve much greater accuracy and therefore become more reliable decision-makers as individuals and a collective. We paint the world in a bleak light, and then seek redemption from it. There are serious issues in the world, but we are in no way close to achieving equilibrium in our feeling of the state of humanity. As a consequence, we base our judgement on an error of framing. Some go so far as to speak of not having children to save them from ‘the tragedy of this apocalyptic world’.
At the end of the day, we are all still just children watching TV. But one who pays attention to the meta-narratives at hand will possess a more sophisticated dataset. Paying attention means being critical of them, while understanding that it is possible (and probable) to judge the whole on the basis of a part and be correct on different levels. In turn, as I frequently recite raw to myself: "Do not be too sure of your own narratives and those you are presented. Always maintain a rational level of doubt."
I believe this is the wisdom behind aphorisms such as "question everything" (Euripides) and to "not stop questioning" (Einstein). As Huxley writes, "It is good to be cynical ... that is, if you know when to stop. Most of the things that we're all taught to respect and reverence — they don't deserve anything but cynicism”. Finally, as per Confucius, "he who learns but does not think, is lost!"
(I apologise for ending on such a note, but this is what is on my mind.)
Till next time,