It's All in the Storytelling

July 11, 2019

As writers know, stories impact imagination. Have an amazing story of why Christopher Marlowe wrote Shakespeare's play and people are convinced--even if no real evidence exists. Richard III is a villain because Shakespeare said so. Sir Thomas More is a saint and hero (A Man for all Seasons) or an intolerant sadistic villain (Wolf Hall). Famous people generating vast archives of data tend to have accumulated virtues and flaws, plus episodes that an be spun in different ways: the making of flawed heroes and colorful villains. Storytelling works particularly well when the plot agrees with existing anchored positions, consistent with confirmation bias.

 

Villains and assorted bad guys are generally more interesting. Teapot Dome and Enron are filled with colorful characters. The upright do-gooders less so. Even tougher is describing the regulators and regulations to make everything right. I have a particular affection for the Securities Acts of the 1930's. These required audits and extensive financial disclosure. Describing the need for an audit opinion and what it says is important, but not page turning. As an accountant, I enjoy looking over annual reports of companies, but explaining to joy of discovering, say, negative net assets is questionable. This is less of an issue when writing an academic article or book; after all, I'm not competing with James Patterson or Stephen King. 

 

This leads me to my current book on the dark side of capitalism with bad guys galore. The problem comes with what was done to correct the corruption. I bit more difficult, although interesting characters exist like Teddy Roosevelt--about as fascinating as do-gooders get. The post-World War II period is difficult, because the rules and regulations were complex and tied into a global economy. Even harder is now, when the topic involves describing concepts, plans and likely outcomes. Not much will happen without substantial political reform. In addition the economy and political system are fragmented. To make real sense one has to get in the weeds which can be tall and nasty (plus growing in a swamp).

 

There is the problem of black, white and gray. Who are the bad guys and the good guys? What was really bad? Black versus white, hero versus villain works for story telling, but often ignores complexity and might miss the mark entirely. Many recent tech billionaires can be innovative heroes, but dark sides emerge. Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook and revolutionized social media. Turns out social media can be abused, "fake news" and totalitarian states blasting into democratic elections. Facebook apparently was more interested in the revenue than in harmful effects. Suddenly, Zuckerberg seems more of a bad guy. Should the story be black and white or a nuanced position of how this happens. Consider Jeff Bezos are Amazon and how he revolutionized retail; but lots of downside: driving brick and mortar stores out of business or excessive workloads of low paid workers--while he's been the richest man in the world.

 

These is something about big and powerful that drive villainy stories. McDonalds was a success until it became the biggest and sold burgers globally. Then the high calorie low nutrition food served by low wage workers to the poor became an outrage. Similar story for Walmart, from successful to driving out small businesses across small-town America; again, low paid workers with poor benefits. TV documentaries showed Donald Trump a tycoon, real estate mogul and media celebrity; then, generally later, a corrupt, narcissistic, womanizing sociopath.   

 

Among my favorite story areas are those without or with limited evidence. As mentioned above, Shakespeare. The assassination of JFK. How could a psychopathic nobody with a crappy rifle kill a popular president? UFOs. I saw one in the 1960's; that is, an unidentified flying object; it acted like a weather balloon with lights--weather balloons can be explained, but what about the lights? Apparently, thousands (millions, perhaps) claim to have been abducted. Erich von Daniken made a name for himself creatively explaining the role of aliens in developing our culture, although smacked down as pseudoscience. 

 

Stories I'm personally involved with can be the worst. When I was in the Army, just back from a tour in South Korea, an Army general who claimed to be an historian claimed than the US was winning in Vietnam and we just needed to push on and add more funding to be successful. This was a total fabrication; likely the general was in on it. This story telling helped kill thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. The school where I spend most of my career was marginally involved in Enron. I didn't see any ethical violations, but we also didn't preach moral values. In any case, Enron has been of particular interest ever since (and ethics was added to the curriculum). 

 

At least since 2016, Trump has been the key figure: hero or villain? What kind of hero or villain? He has the distinction of being a unique political figure, one without any background or much interest in public policy or what presidents are supposed to know. I suppose there is the Henry Ford defense, that he didn't need to know anything, because he could hire experts in any field. The hero/villain argument is easy in the sense of the political divide: Democrats are appalled, Republicans defend. Republicans who refuse, resign from the party. Thanks to confirmation bias, framing, and cognitive dissonance, true believers wont budge. The moderates are the pliable ones that can be swayed by story telling. [The problem here is no one will be swayed by another lie or another woman claiming assault.] Also, what about the presenters? The news is supposed to be unbiased; what does a journalist do? The easy answer seems to be to stick to facts: Trump tweeted this today (no comment necessary). Report that the Washington Post has Trump at 11,000 lies to date (it's up to the Washington Post to defend the number and why they're lies). As a moderate, I feel their pain. His big stick policy often seems despicable, but can be effective (what is a weaker opponent supposed to do?). Defend or oppose?

 

 

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© 2016 Gary Giroux

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