Guest post: The stories people tell each other

Originally a comment by guest on What the specific demands for liberation ARE.

It seems a bit ridiculous to think the stories people tell each other in any culture DON’T influence the behaviour of those people. And don’t forget Harry Potter–I was, I think, possibly too old for it when it hit, and after reading half of the first novel gave it up as boring and derivative, but I’ve read and heard some things that make me think it would be difficult to overestimate its effect on the generation it was aimed at. I never watched the X-Files myself, but your recommendation is making me think I should check it out. It just seems a shame that the stories in our culture are, at base, designed not to teach lessons or preserve culture, traditions or history but to generate income for the tellers.

Here’s something I wrote the other day:

I went to a talk last night in which the speaker mentioned the idea that our narrative is what drives our perceptions and behaviour. I think there’s a lot of truth in that. I’ve thought (and possibly written) before about the kinds of narratives I remember from the media I consumed as a child—stories, movies, Saturday morning cartoons. Two in particular seemed to be persistent/consistent. The first was ‘when you first encounter X it’s frightening/confusing/stupid, but the more you learn about X the more you realise why X is what it is and, if not sympathise, at least understand.’ The example of this narrative that comes to my mind is the Horta in ST:TOS. But there were several stories of ‘the primitive people do X, the white rational invaders show up and say X is a backward superstition so they make people stop doing X, either by neglecting it or forcing them to give up their customs, and horrific consequences ensue.’ Moral of the story: if you don’t understand something then learn about it; every ‘other’ is a subject of its own story, every ‘irrational’ ‘primitive’ behaviour has a reason.

The second was what I call the ‘heist story’ and what a friend called the ‘D&D story’. A random group of people, from different backgrounds, with different histories and different skill sets, come together or are forced together, and each contributes something unique to the success of a project they carry out together. The example of this that comes to my mind, though it wasn’t something I encountered as a child, is Sharon Green’s ‘Blending’ novels (though I wish the two female protagonists weren’t ‘a prostitute’ and ‘a merchant’s daughter’–particularly as, in the pseudo-preindustrial England of typical Anglophone fantasy a ‘merchant’s daughter’ is basically ‘a merchant’), but any ‘quest’ story has this element. Moral of the story: every person, even a marginalised/othered person, has some value if you can find it. People succeed when they contribute to diverse groups.

So what happened to these narratives? As far as I can tell we have different ones now—it seems the most popular narrative now is the superhero story. Moral of the story: some people (a very few special people) are just naturally better than others. They may work as a team occasionally, but they are an elite team. The rest of us can only hope that these elites might do something that benefits us; we have no agency, and can only rely on the good nature and integrity of the ‘good’ elites, who will protect us from the ‘bad’ elites.

My question at the moment is which comes first, the narrative or the reality, and which drives the other?

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