Stories rule the world
“...What happens is of little significance compared with the stories we tell ourselves about what happens. Events matter little, only stories of events affect us.”
- Rabih Alameddine, Author
It's true. We inhabit a reality honed from the narratives in which we invest our belief. Recently, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari focused upon this idea in his TED article Why Humans Run the World. As Harari states, 'We can cooperate with numerous strangers because we can invent fictional stories, spread them around, and convince millions of strangers to believe in them.' This he posits, is what truly separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom and grants us primacy on the planet. The fictional element is a moot point, but certainly the subjective perspectives we convey in our stories can take lifeless, neutral data and facts, and either recruit or repel others to feel and understand things our way or not. Narratives are really that powerful.
Harari goes on to suggest that even concepts such as human rights exist only through belief and narrative, formalised through the legal system. As he says, 'In reality, humans have no rights, just as chimps or wolves have no rights. Cut open a human, and you won’t find there any rights. The only place where human rights exist is in the stories we invent and tell one another. Human rights may be a very attractive story, but it is only a story.' So much we hold most dear, it would seem, is a factor of our beliefs and value stories, and not of any objective truth. It is only through the integrity of the values with which we construct our narratives that we can create a reliable 'truth' out of the vast oceans of data with which our senses are assailed every moment.
As this idea sinks in, it becomes clear that more than raw facts themselves, we need ethically-sound narratives to help shape a benign reality for all earthlings. We have the power, through stories, to render our planet a heaven or a hell for our fellow travellers. Perhaps it's an impossibility for us to take any facts as just the way things are. The stories which bind these data and events ultimately drive our behaviour in the face of them. And intrinsic in our stories are the beliefs and values which make us who we are.
Furthermore, Harari states, 'The same mechanism is at work in politics. Like gods and human rights, nations are fictions. A mountain is something real. You can see it, touch it, smell it. But the United States or Israel are not a physical reality. You cannot see them, touch them or smell them. They are just stories that humans invented and then became extremely attached to.' In a very real sense, we inhabit a largely fictitious reality. Even the primary entity of economic interaction on our planet, money, falls under the category of belief rather than any concrete reality, yet the narratives concerning money are considered largely beyond debate in our society.
Harari concludes, 'Whereas all other animals live in an objective world of rivers, trees and lions, we humans live in dual world. Yes, there are rivers, trees and lions in our world. But on top of that objective reality, we have constructed a second layer of make-believe reality, comprising fictional entities such as the European Union, God, the dollar and human rights.
And as time passes, these fictional entities have become ever more powerful, so that today they are the most powerful forces in the world. The very survival of trees, rivers and animals now depends on the wishes and decisions of fictional entities such as the United States and the World Bank — entities that exist only in our own imagination.'
It would appear that those who wish to affect the reality of our society must be involved in the crafting of the most compelling of stories. There's a lot at stake.