Storytelling, a tradition that built human civilization, may soon destroy it
Humans are storytelling animals. Stories are what make our societies possible. Countless books celebrate their virtues. But Jonathan Gottschall, an expert on the science of stories, argues that there is a dark side to storytelling we can no longer ignore. Storytelling, the very tradition that built human civilization, may be the thing that destroys it.
In The Story Paradox, Gottschall explores how a broad consortium of psychologists, communications specialists, neuroscientists, and literary quants are using the scientific method to study how stories affect our brains. The results challenge the idea that storytelling is an obvious force for good in human life. Yes, storytelling can bind groups together, but it is also the main force dragging people apart. And it’s the best method we’ve ever devised for manipulating each other by circumventing rational thought. Behind all civilization’s greatest ills—environmental destruction, runaway demagogues, warfare—you will always find the same master factor: a mind-disordering story.
Gottschall argues that societies succeed or fail depending on how they manage these tensions. And it has only become harder, as new technologies that amplify the effects of disinformation campaigns, conspiracy theories, and fake news make separating fact from fiction nearly impossible.
With clarity and conviction, Gottschall reveals why our biggest asset has become our greatest threat, and what, if anything, can be done. It is a call to stop asking, “How we can change the world through stories?” and start asking, “How can we save the world from stories?”
Gottschall recycles many of his previous claims about the power and danger of narratives in this tedious and self-contradictory sequel to The Storytelling Animal. Contending that "all narrative is reductionist" and that storytelling is humanity's "essential poison," Gottschall cherry-picks dozens of examples to build his case, noting, for instance, that Plato's Republic "condemned storytellers as professional liars who got the body politic drunk on emotion," and that Tommy Wiseau's notoriously bad 2003 movie, The Room, fails to convey its misogynistic message because it doesn't generate "narrative transportation." In Gottschall's view, historical storytelling "frequently amounts to a kind of revenge fantasy, where the malefactors of our past can be resurrected, tried, and convicted for violating moral codes they frequently hadn't heard of." But he downplays contemporaneous evidence of people risking their lives to, for instance, resist the Nazi Party and end slavery in the American South, and he doesn't acknowledge any social and cultural histories that do not "wrench real-world facts into line with the most powerful grammar of fiction." Though his sharp sense of humor entertains, Gottschall's overly broad and reductive argument falls flat. This study is more provocative than persuasive.