Human beings are storytellers but that sometimes does us more harm than goodby Julian Baggini / November 5, 2018 / Leave a comment
At the football World Cup in Russia last summer, members of the England squad started parroting a kind of mantra. “As a team and a squad you want to write your own story and history,” said manager Gareth Southgate. “We said we wanted to write our own history,” captain Harry Kane dutifully repeated, while his team-mate Dele Alli duly told reporters “we want to write our own history now.”
For some time, academics and psychologists have been talking about the importance of narrative for making sense of the world and ourselves. It has now become received opinion that human beings are essentially storytellers: “homo narrans.” To be successful, political movements have to be able to tell a compelling narrative; to have a sense of identity we need a story of our own lives, and so on. When even football players have bought into this, we can be pretty sure we’ve reached “peak narrative.”
The problem is that while the narratives we like tell tend to be more like Hollywood movies, reality looks more like the work of a Beckett or a Pinter. In our autobiographical narratives, our own contribution to the writing of our lives tends to be exaggerated while the role of chance and accident gets downplayed. Our inconsistencies also get ironed out as we imagine ourselves to have a coherent set of beliefs and motivations when often we just act, the real reasons for our actions unknown to us. We also tend to see our lives as having distinct arcs, a series of actions directed at future goals which logically follow from each other. The more we tidy the tales we tell, the more they resemble works of fiction rather than truthful histories.
It’s easy to see why we do all this. Stories can be extremely powerful. The narrative impulse can help us in our attempts to bring more cohesion to our lives. This is benign only as long as we remember we are never simply describing a coherent story that is already there, waiting to be written up.
National and ethnic narratives, however, are more difficult to keep under control. Almost invariably, these create myths of exceptionalism, essentialism and destiny. Even more than “I,” “we” is a construct containing conflicting multitudes. In national narratives, however, “we” becomes “the people,” a homogeneous, consistent and virtuous entity with a clear will. This “people” becomes different from all others, with its unique role on the world stage.
The most lamentable example of this is America’s myth of “manifest destiny.” This comes in more or less incredible versions, but the general sense that America has a world-historic mission to uphold freedom and Christian values around the world informs the way many Americans see themselves and their nation. The result is too often hubris and a sense of moral superiority that has blinded the US to its own failings and licensed it to make ill-advised foreign interventions.
Britain has its own narratives that both comfort and lead astray. Our national story is one of proud independence, the White Cliffs of Dover as our fortress wall. Mainland Europe is 21 miles away but a world apart. That slither of channel separates a nation of sensible law-abiding subjects from a continent that is prone to authoritarianism, rampant corruption, or both.
This narrative has always made our participation in the European Union problematic. There is something to the claim that Remain failed to win the referendum because it didn’t create a strong counter-narrative. But the problem lies with making this alternative story compelling. Unless we appreciate the reasons why coming together is in all our best interests, the narrative of union rings hollow and people retreat to the more intuitively appealing stories of national unity instead.
So, yes, we do need narratives. But to avoid them becoming traps, always we have to remember each is just one story that could be told, and be alert to how the dominant account might be blinding us to inconvenient truths as well as wonderful possibilities.