One of the things reading a lot of fiction teaches you is that everything we rely on in the real world is made up. We are narrative beings and we rely on the power of stories to guide our everyday lives. Very little of our experiences and the systems we live in are based on cold facts. Most of the stories we tell ourselves do no have neat structures, with a beginning, a middle and an end, but are beliefs we hold that change how we view the world.
I was thinking about this recently in the context of the media. Our tabloids are hugely partisan, selling stories of hate and division to sell more papers. You only need to glance at the language used in The Daily Mail to see this explicitly in action. The ongoing narratives they tell change the world and have profound impacts on current events, such as Brexit last year. Still, in this age of declining newspaper sales, they are trusted beyond other forms of media. The stories they weave have considerable impact. The biases are enacted on a national scale.
The problem is, there is no such thing as the perfect, unbiased newspaper. I don’t like the story the tabloids are selling, but the newspapers I read are still weaving a narrative. It is just one that fits my worldview better. It is simply impossible to remove all editorial bias and present the facts plainly. Even if the news was a dry list with all emotional words removed, whichever story you chose to tell first will have more impact. The placing, emphasis and selection of stories will add emphasis to some stories and remove it from others. There’s no way to present the events without telling a narrative. The recent concern about fake news has shown there is too much information out there. People will decide upon a viewpoint and will look for news that confirms it. Traditional media does the same thing, to a higher editorial standard. It chooses the events it considers important and shows a view of the world that is highly selective.
It’s not just the media that suffers from this narrative impulse. Each one of us suffers from selection bias. Look at how we construct our past. We tell ourselves a story of how we came to be in our current situation and where we are going. We edit memories and select ones that support the story, ignoring the others. Human beings are terrible eyewitnesses, mostly because of this editing we do in our heads. It’s the same as the media. There is too much information to process at any one time, so we select and edit. In short, we tell ourselves a story of our lives. We create ourselves based on this story every day.
As well as our sense of self being a story, the people we meet every day become characters. We meet people and within seconds we make many wide sweeping generalisations about them. From that point, it is hard to shake the assumptions we have made about them in fleeting moments. Other people become actors in a story that we make as we go along.
If our whole sense of self is based on a selective narrative, then the systems and beliefs we hold about the world are subject to the same flaws. Our view of the world around us is based on a story. Which means it is incomplete. The more you look, the more you see it. History is just a story a nation tells itself to justify its existence. The economy is a story we tell based on strange, random factors. All the systems we have built, every establishment is based on a story of how the world functions. Everything humans do and achieve starts with a narrative of where we have come from. Or alternatively, it starts with a story of what can happen in the future. The same structure recurs over and over again. Stories are not just an idle pursuit to read on a lazy sunday afternoon, they are the very essence of our being and our existence. They are essential as a tool to survive in the chaos of a random, uncaring universe. We need stories to live. It’s the only way we can understand the infinite complexity around us.
Even this article has been changed to fix a narrative. I said earlier I had thought of this when seeing the recent media bias, but that was a lie to better fit the story of the article. In reality, these ideas have been percolating for years, from several different sources and unconscious thoughts. But that didn’t fit the story I was telling.
So what can we do about it? My instinct is; there’s not a lot we can do. We can be aware of our desire for narrative and seek out blind spots. We can try to work together and establish facts, no matter how hard or inconvenient. My main feeling is that humans are hardwired for storytelling, that this is how we communicate and lead our lives, through an ongoing story that we all contribute to. Writers of fiction can change the story and alter it. Stories are the basis of who we are. They have changed the world again and again. We can tell better stories together. We can change the narratives around us. After all, if everything is a tale, that means everything can be changed. We can work towards a better story, kind instead of cruel, we instead of I. We just need to tell ourselves a different narrative.