Stories – the good, the bad, and the ugly

One of the biggest mysteries we are yet to solve is around how we homo-sapiens became the dominant species on earth, and not our more physically and mentally capable relatives (such as neanderthals). Yuval Harari claims that our stories are what make us different. Stories helped homo-sapiens rally around in enormous numbers and overpower every other species on the planet. Tribal battles fought during the ice-age, the crusades and our present idea of national identity are all united by having fictitious stories behind them. Stories come in different shades:

The good: Several ideas that can help us co-exist on the planet can be crafted into stories, given our affinity to them. Ancient Indian epics and Aesop’s fables alike rely on the ease with which we grasp lessons in story form. B.R Ambedkar’s statement speech in the Indian parliament on completing the Indian constitution and Martin Luther King having a dream were both fantastic stories. Stories could be a powerful tool in education. They can be used to breakdown and understand the abstract concepts that govern the working of our universe.

The bad: The reason stories are so effective is that they can get under our skin and hijack rationality or objectivity. Stories can get in the way of us perceiving the truth and insidiously replace it with our truth. Stories can cause us to rile up and behave in ways that are unacceptable to others, and to our own selves. Stories imprison us, and prevent us from witnessing our own actions. A story convinced Gavrilo Princip to kill an Austrian prince and unwittingly cause two world-wars.  Nathuram Godse’s story caused him to pull a trigger and assassinate Gandhi.

The ugly: People are, by nature, conscientious. Our conscience prescribes limits to our actions and prevents us from stepping outside these limits. For Gandhi, this limit was uttering a lie. For Richard Luttrell, it was killing an enemy soldier and finding a picture with his daughter in his wallet, and for Ashoka, it was the slaughter at Kalinga. However, stories can give rise to institutions, that are completely free  of conscientiousness, and this has resulted in unprecedented violence and crime. The vehicle of these institutions is propaganda – a storytelling machinery. The Nazi regime, The Cambodian Khmer Rouge, and Islamic terror are all such institutions .

In conclusion, much like electricity, stories are good servants and bad masters. Today, we realize that facts do not matter – stories do. We are our stories and our freedom is the extent to which we recognize this.

Sources: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari is an extraordinary read. Here is an interview with Harari on the James Altucher Show podcast

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