The Storyteller’s Obligation

In my previous post I linked to a study on how children were inspired to virtuous action by the role model of George Washington, who told his own father he cut down the cherry tree and was rewarded for honesty.

This is a useful thing to know, both as a parent and also more generally as someone who would like to inspire virtue in a broad range of people. However, it makes me think about a particular consequence of storytelling, and how aspirational stories can lead to tragedies.

Garret Jones recently stated that “There are few horrors of the last century that can’t be blamed on an excessive concern for justice.”, and I believe that’s entirely right. The 20th century’s communist revolutions that led the greatest string of tragedies the human race has yet seen were based on a story about justice and fair distribution of wealth. They told a story about how human society could pass through a socialist phase and into a communist phase where material wealth and prosperity was available to everyone and no one would enjoy power and status over another. It would be Utopia.

Of course it turned out these stories were wrong. Marx was wrong. Communism doesn’t work. The entire exercise was doomed to failure from before it started. 

This is the danger of stories. They can inspire people, but they can also lead them to folly. If we only tell people the good half of stories, or (worse) tell people stories about the way we wish the world were, we lead them astray. 

And this isn’t limited to grand tragedies like the Great Leap Forward, but also in small ways and individual lives. A young person may spend money on a degree whose prospects are not what they were told, or engage in relationships with unrealistic expectations of how love and friendship actually works. This causes heartache, lost money and effort, and also comes back to bite the storyteller as a teller of lies (however well meaning they were at the time).

Don’t do this. Only tell stories that are true. Inspire, but also be wise. Be like Shakespeare, and Homer. 

6 thoughts on “The Storyteller’s Obligation

  1. Jessica

    I want to share this with my Communist friends, but not sure how to broach the subject. They’ve made it clear they think I’m simply a greedy Capitalist pig, rather than a scientist and a practical idealist. Advice?

    1. The problem you face is that anyone who’s a Communist at this point in history is already engaged in a very strong exercise of willful ignorance. Communism has failed everywhere it has tried, not to mention the millions of deaths it causes. Venezuela’s sad and slow collapse is only the latest example. Most Communists have excuses for each failure, but my standard response is “Do you think the Chinese and Russians were idiots? Do you really think that your version will somehow produce better results than all previous attempts?”

      But my question never seems to work at converting anyone away from Communism.

      Let me put it this way, this post is sort of like a leaflet from a Jehovah’s Witness. Have one of those ever convinced you to join a Church? Unlikely. This post won’t convince your Communist friends either.

      I’d probably study how people are broken out of cults and what is necessary to reverse years of bizarre conditioning.

  2. Jessica

    Thanks for this response. Sorry I missed it before!
    Funnily enough, the main person I was thinking of is a former cult member. Tangential, perhaps, or perhaps not.
    Have tried mentioning Russia and China, but that’s what seems to bring about the greatest ire. Hmm.
    Thanks again

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