Monday, August 12, 2013

The (frightening) power of a good story

We all know that good stories can be very powerful. They can broaden our minds, put us through the emotional wringer, even teach us things that are relevant to our real world experience.

Then, of course, there are times when they teach us things that are wrong.

Not long ago we saw a really good - and hilarious - video describing the real sound that swords make when they are pulled from a scabbard (which has unfortunately been taken down since). Essentially, it explains that the noise we commonly hear in movies when we see swords drawn is incorrect. Swords do not say "ssshhhinggg!" when they are drawn. But we've heard the "story" so many times - so many more times than we've heard the real sound - that it's hard to hear the actual sound in our minds! We can easily end up writing that "ssshhhingg" into our own stories without even thinking about it. And thereby we perpetuate a myth.

This is something that also happens with internet memes, where we engage in the repetition of a story. Sometimes the story is true, and sometimes it isn't. I know I've been caught out before, accidentally passing on a story that was incorrect. I generally try to let everyone I passed it to know that I made a mistake, but I still feel bad. I've been helping to perpetuate a myth.

Stories have real power. A story that is shared by thousands and millions of people doesn't just exist on its own any more. It persists as a kind of language - a vocabulary shared by all the people who have shared the story itself. I think of the way that geeks of all stripes will trade quotes from their favorite books, often supplying the first line of a pair and waiting for the other person to supply the second as a kind of password. The world is now full of people who know what "muggles" are. And words like "chortle" have become part of the general English vocabulary because of Lewis Carroll's success.

At least we know the sources for those stories. It's far more dangerous when the stories told are told about real life. Here is an article I found both dismaying and fascinating, about characters we create. The characters of our reality myths can be the most damaging of all. "Fake geek girl" is a current one, which has been accepted by the members of a particular social group as a shared story, a shared character, a shared overlay upon reality. Anyone who has ever had such a character overlaid upon them knows how frustrating this can be. The character becomes the lens through which you are seen and understood by whoever accepts the underlying myth/story. The character also serves as a blind that covers up and attempts to streamline the complex reality of a person.

Stories are important. We turn the events of our lives into stories, which we share with others. These stories do fall into patterns. However, they can't be entirely regularized. Every person's story is unique. Furthermore, we can't help but understand other people's stories in terms of our own. It's when we stop at the borders of the story as we have understood it that the story has the power to shut down understanding and create problems.

It's something to think about.


  1. The link to the video doesn't appear to be working. It says it was removed at the owner's request.

    But your words still make a good point.

    1. Darn! Shame about the video, because it was hilarious. Thanks for letting me know.

  2. A video like this?

    Also, this was a good post.