Stories we tell ourselves

Why do people accept little pieces of paper in exchange for goods and services? The paper has no intrinsic value. U.S. currency used to carry a government promise of redemption in gold or silver, but no longer. Yet we still accept it because we know everyone else does. It’s that shared belief that creates its value — from nothing, as it were.

It’s just a human mental construct. If people stop believing a currency has value, it will have none. That’s happened in various times and places.

A lot about human civilization works this way, as historian Yuval Noah Harari argues. Money’s value is a story we tell ourselves; it has no independent reality apart from that storytelling. The same applies, Harari says, to things like the European Union, or Apple Corporation, which exist only as mental constructs — stories.

That may be going too far. I’m writing this on a device produced by Apple which seems pretty solid. Though bought not even with pieces of paper but with electronic pulses representing them — meta-storytelling!

Nevertheless, Harari is right that storytelling has always played a key role in how people understand, relate to, and function in the world. It’s how we organize information, and respond appropriately to it. In fact, the meaning of our lives, our very sense of self, really are stories we tell ourselves.

World War II involved a story we told ourselves (and still continue retelling). Meanwhile the Germans were telling themselves the story with a slightly different take. In both cases the storytelling gave people a way to understand their world and their role in it — having great impact on how they lived their lives (or lost them).

The foregoing points up that insofar as storytelling aims at understanding, it helps for it to be reality-based. But beliefs — stories we cherish — can produce a powerful reality-distortion effect. As in the case of WWII Germans (at least from the victors’ perspective). I have written of what I call my own “ideology of reality.” The stories we tell ourselves should be shaped by reality, as best we can perceive it — rather than the realities we imagine we perceive being shaped by the stories we tell ourselves.

When someone is alone in telling themselves a story at odds with reality, we call that madness. When a lot of people do, we call it culture (or religion).

Harari (in his book Homo Deus) talks of the 12th century’s Third Crusade, to retake Jerusalem from the “infidel” Muslims, and “John,” a hypothetical young English nobleman who joins it. John believes he’s going for the glory of God, killing infidels will be heroic, and if he falls in battle, he will be met by angels’ trumpets escorting him through golden gates into an eternal paradise. John actually, truly, literally believes this. It is the story he tells himself — because it’s the story he’s been told, throughout his life, by everyone around him (as Harari details at length). The result is that for John the story’s falsity is inconceivable. (Even though the Muslims believe essentially the same story).

Of course there’s much more to Christianity’s story. Adam disobeyed God by eating from the tree of knowledge, and that “original sin” tainted all of Adam’s descendants, barring them from Heaven until Jesus came and accepted his own death to redeem humanity. Though Jesus actually cheated death and got resurrected. I think that’s more or less the story. It sure is a good one. A real whopper.

Politics too is all about telling ourselves stories. Communism, for example, was obviously grounded in an elaborate story believers told themselves, about capitalism’s development, how the economy and society work, relationships between workers and owners, and how the future might unfold for good or ill. A story gotten from the pages of Marx. It may actually have had some explanatory power when Marx wrote in the 1800s, but communism as practiced by his disciples is quite another story.

Harari’s book gave me added insight into Trump supporters. The tale of Crusader John seems very pertinent. Trumpism entails a potent witch’s brew of stories, which of course he himself assiduously stirs.

Combining religious and political stories

Those stories dictate the reality his supporters perceive. That America needs making great again. That we’ve been schnooks victimized by other countries. That immigrants are mostly bad people, bad for America. Maybe most non-white people are. Like Obama who was born in Africa and was very bad. That Hillary was a monstrous criminal too. That mainstream press lies, while Trump tells it like it is. That he’s a sort of crusader himself, working hard to drain the swamp, a white knight battling against all those nefarious forces and a deep-state political conspiracy of evil liberals and infidels intent on bringing him down with phony allegations.

It’s not only Trump himself, and his voters, telling themselves this story. It’s his government officials, spokespeople, and most Republican politicians too, convincing themselves of it (or most of it). Just listen to them. Like Crusader John, they’ve so brainwashed themselves that they actually, truly, literally believe it.

Even though, like John’s story, it’s all false. And, like John, they worship a false god.

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2 Responses to “Stories we tell ourselves”

  1. Chips Says:

    Money is valued in that the sovereign requires its citizens to use a specified currency to pay the taxes it imposes. Absent this requirement, no currency is guaranteed to retain its value or utility. The only “shared belief” is that a failure to pay taxes in a specific currency may result in imprisonment. I can pay my U.S. taxes in euros or bitcoins but first I need to convert them into dollars.

    http://neweconomicperspectives.org/2014/05/taxes-mmt-approach.html

  2. Jorg Lueke Says:

    The biggest story our thoughts create is that we actually exist as independent selves.

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