The stories that rule the world

“Those who tell stories rule the world.” Plato’s observation is as true today as it was millennia ago. Stories give our lives meaning, and this places immense power in the hands of storytellers. It is of no coincidence that the word ‘authority’ is derived from the Latin ‘auctor’, meaning originator or promoter. Stories provide the flesh of authority on the bones of power. A story is defined as a “narrative that pieces together certain characters, facts or events into relationships, contexts or sequences.” It is a union of individual things into a synergetic patchwork.

Thus, in his recent book Lessons from the Top, Gavin Esler shows how individual leaders consciously promulgate their ‘story’ in order to gain legitimacy and influence. Perhaps the most powerful stories however are those by which regimes themselves legitimise their philosophy and actions. The potency of Nazi Germany lay in the story spun by a systematic propaganda machine. The burning of books, the confiscation of ‘degenerate’ art and the demonization of jazz music were all instrumental to the silencing of any story that contradicted the Nazi ‘Weltanschauung’. This story set up a hierarchy of authority, pitting the ‘goodies’ – the Aryan, blonde, blue-eyed – against the ‘baddies’ –in other words, against any of the ‘unheard’ (Jews, gypsies, the disabled, Communists, Socialists, homosexuals and others) whose very existence signified a rebellion against the primacy of this story in human consciousness. Those at the top of the hierarchy had a monopoly on authority not just in a physical, coercive sense, but also because their story was the only one to be told. Indeed, silencing the stories of those at the bottom of the hierarchy in such a brutal and systematic way had a pernicious effect on generations to come. 

Stories are essential in how groups come to see themselves; The persecution of the Jews is a story that has intensified their sense of community and identity. Part of the reason why the conflict in Gaza is so intractable lies in the fact that there are two conflicting ‘stories’, both of which give one or the other group an intimate connection to the land. The territorial significance of Gaza has less to do with geography and more to do with stories. More importantly, the failure to find a peaceful settlement lies in the failure of communal stories to engage with one another – it is often as if the barrier of these competing stories is as insurmountable as speaking in different languages.

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There are fundamental and aching rifts in the world between the stories of the rich and poor, West and East, male and female, black and white, gay and straight, Jew and Arab. The problem lies not so much in the fact of division (up to a point) – conflict is a fundamental part of social change – but the impact this division has had upon storytelling across the rift. If, as Martin Luther King argues, “A riot is the language of the unheard”, then the Ferguson riots, along with all uprisings all over the world, are a cry of frustration against an incumbent authority (a promoter of a particular story) that fails to listen.

As Chimamanda Adichi powerfully argues in her talk ‘The danger of a single story’, when this dialectic of storytelling is absent, injustice is inevitable. It is also doomed to render the ‘single story’ empty of meaning. Just as the Nazi story exterminated all possible opposition and thus left itself protected from counter-narratives, so we are faced everywhere with a prevailing and often unchallenged story, the over-telling of which undermines its very power. The content of the Western story is always the same: overcoming a seemingly invincible obstacle or enemy through sheer perseverance, Disney-style – because “anything is possible, if you just believe” (whether the obstacle be social immobility or, at this moment in history, Isis). The problem with these stories is that they propose an over-simplified solution which, when it fails to appear, will leave people feeling hopeless and disillusioned.

The regurgitation of these stories through the onslaught of graphic and harrowing scenes in charity advertisements and newsreels has unintentionally desensitized the public from suffering because they know that their £3 a month will not cure world poverty. The fact is, donating to charities may be a good thing, but does little more than paper over the cracks. It does not provide a long-term solution because it relies upon a ‘single story’ of the Third World as a barren and distant land to be pitied and fed crumbs from the table. The reality is that these countries possess immense cultural richness and raw materials, and deserve diplomatic and economic support to fulfil their potential – for example, through fairer trade agreements with the West and a boycott on the arms trade.

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In British politics, we have been spoon-fed the Tory story, encapsulated by frankly laughable soundbites such as “The Big Society”, “We’re all in this together”, and “We all need to tighten our belts”. This story casts state ownership as a monster, benefit-recipients as ‘scroungers’ and immigrants as ‘job thieves’. As Chimamanda Adichi points out, “Show a people as one thing — as only one thing — over and over again, and that is what they become.” If we don’t want to make our unemployed into scroungers, our immigrants into outsiders, or the Third World into a weak and defenceless ‘Other’, then we have to actively fight the stories that cast such damaging caricatures. 

We have been manipulated into being “all in this together”(i.e. bearing the burden for a financial elite whose recklessness crushed the foundations of our economy) and “tightening our belts” (i.e. dismantling and privatising the Welfare State) because we do not feel sufficiently empowered to form a strong counter-story. We have accepted the yarn, set up by the government and spun by the press, that the NHS is inefficient, incompetent and negligent and that it can only be saved by the creeping privatisation and commodification of one of our most important social institutions. We have accepted the idea that the socio-economic elite should be accorded more authority than the majority, who are struggling to provide for their families as the cost of living rises exponentially and incomes wither on the vine. Why have we accepted this? We have become too disillusioned and wrapped up in the ‘single story’ to form our own stories. But there is hope for change. Counter-stories are emerging from a broad spectrum of people, from Owen Jones, to Russell Brand, to a group of Darlington mums who sparked the ‘Save our NHS’ march through the country. But these voices need more recognition and support to seriously challenge Tory rhetoric.

The single story is neat. It doesn’t have any raggedy edges. The goody triumphs over the baddy, rags transform to riches. It is this very neatness and sterility that makes it dangerous. We should embrace a dialectic of storytelling, with all its rough edges arising from the inevitable differences in how people perceive the world, in the hope that greater resolution will be achieved through an organic patchwork of stories than through the ‘single story’.