Volume 0, Issue 0

Get Your Story Straight

In Unfiled on 2019/12/18 at 12:26 am

Get Your Story Straight

First, go read “Brain scans show how ‘collective narration’ shapes our memories” by Emma Betuel, published December 16, 2019 at Inverse. Or, even better, if you have access through the paywall, go read “Collective memory shapes the organization of individual memories in the medial prefrontal cortex” at Nature. I’ll wait right here.

Didn’t read it? Doesn’t matter. The upshot is that what you know is filtered through the murky swamp of “what everybody knows.” Even though “everybody knows” that “what everybody knows” is pretty much garbage.

Let’s look at why “what everybody knows” is garbage next. Or first, if you didn’t bother to read any of the prerequisite material.

Everyone is thinking-impaired. Some of us work very hard to work around those impairments, but most of us don’t bother. Because first you have to know that your thinking is impaired. Then you have to understand how it is impaired. Then you have to care enough about knowing how reality actually works to want to fight your flaws. Finally, you have to not care about how it will separate you from your comfortable place in your tribe to know fact from your scripted, accepted fiction.

When something happens, especially if it triggers an emotional response in us, we try to understand why the event occurred — so we can prevent it happening again or encourage it to happen again, depending on our personal tastes. Sorry, I misspoke. We try to “understand,” which is not the same thing as actual understanding. Because “understanding” involves breaking down the event — or having it broken down for us, by an authority figure — into a linear chain of smaller events, each described by initial circumstances in a universal arena of time and space, and set into motion by human (or anthropomorphized) agents. Otherwise: a story. “Understanding” means someone tells you (or you tell yourself) a story of what happened. At which point if it is plausible enough, you at least tentatively believe it. And if a lot of members of your tribe believe it, you are tons more likely to believe it yourself and add it to your copy of the stack of “communal memories” as described in the prerequisite material, or, in the above terminology, “what everybody knows.”

Understanding, on the other hand, involves the acceptance that no event has merely a single cause or a single effect, and that the math involved for either predicting or influencing any such event is stochastic and probabilistic, and that humans, when they are involved, are barely self-willed enough to be causal agents in anything. We react far, far more often than we act, if we’re going to be honest with ourselves.

It’s understandable that we’d prefer to “understand” rather than understand. Our entire justice system, worldwide, is based on an assumption of human agency, of linear causality, of a storybook interpretation of cause and effect, of heroes and villains, and even the penalties of fines and imprisonment and assigned labor and even of death being applied based on a judge or jury’s grasp of the plausibility and believability of any particular narrative as presented by the prosecution or defense, even though we know for damn sure that reality itself is frequently 100% unbelievable. We live our lives by the rules of stories. Sometimes we end lives by the rules of stories too. Even though we know that stories are bullshit.

But that’s just a sidebar. We know that an event doesn’t need to be probable or plausible or believable to happen. We even know that there isn’t even really any such thing as an event, because the dividing line between anything that can be said to happen and all of the other happenings that are constantly occurring around it is kind of arbitrary. Nothing divides one moment from the next or previous moment. And being humans, we all understand that our own behaviors are often beyond explaining, even to ourselves.

The more important part of this discussion is that stack of communal memories, or “what everybody knows.” We build that stack with care, starting in childhood, because we know that behaving consistently with respect to that stack of absolute crap is the difference between being accepted as a member of the local community or having one’s ass beaten on a regular basis by the bullies and membership gatekeepers. “What everybody knows” is just a shibboleth. Willingness to adhere to that stack of crap is the core of every cult and every religion and every political party and “team players” at every company and the core of every movement of popular nationalism and just about any ideology you’d care to name.

Adhering to the “truthiness” of “what everybody knows” feels even more necessary in an atmosphere of fear. When the fighting seems like it’s going to start any minute, nobody wants to be caught too far away from their own side. In fact, adding “the fighting is going to start any minute!!!” to the communal stack of “what everybody knows” is a great way to tighten the ranks. You get bonus points for acting threateningly enough that you can get your main opposing groups to also tighten their ranks to keep any of yours from defecting.

Ridicule-worthy beliefs for which no evidence could possibly exist are also frequently employed. But so, bizarrely enough, are beliefs that are absolutely demonstrable-to-the-laws-of-physics false. This is a favorite move of cults everywhere. Disregard for the fruits of the scientific method, including objecting to the fact that the earth has a history beyond some arbitrary date of creation. Disregard for the evidence of physical senses of, say, the curvature of the earth. Disregard for any evidence for the process of evolution. Disregard for any evidence of the effect of mankind’s pollution by the burning of fossil fuels on the global climate. Disregard for any and all evidence showing that no particular race (or rather, “race,” as the concept of race in general is a fiction) is in any way to superior to any other. These are all popular stances that are frequently endorsed to increase unity in any synthetic tribe … because that makes it certain that your adherents are going to suffer popular ridicule and abuse that will make them feel like they need the protection of their group even more. And you can know you’re dealing with a cult that relies on inspiring strife and ridicule to reinforce dependence on the group when one of the membership requirements is that you have to announce your membership publicly and accept your lumps from the general populace. Sometimes even door to door, in the guise of evangelism.

The article(s) I linked to in the opening paragraph put it terms of memories, and that is an important point. Because up to now you could think that I’m talking about what you have to pretend to embrace as true in order to be accepted as part of a group. But in reality it’s more insidious: your not-exactly-conscious need to belong to the group of your choosing causes you to perceive as either “truthy” or “bullshitty” any particular new fact — or story element — based on how compatible it is with the stack of garbage that is “what everybody knows” — where “everybody” is, specifically, everyone in the tribe to which you want to most to belong.

It’s automatic. And necessary for personal comfort and safety. And, except for the fact that ignoring the difference between reality and fiction is a good way to get wiped out in the long term, it’s a great way to enjoy the protection of your herd in the short term. It’s survival-oriented. If you’re not inclined to pay too much attention, “what everybody knows” is all the “reality” you need to get by.

To put the thesis statement at the end: what you think of as true is hugely determined by the “collective memories” you assemble to enable membership in your social groups of choice. It gets so much easier to figure out what is real when you can realize that, first, you actually need to care about what is real. Because of that long term survival thing. I wish it didn’t mean you have to be prepared to be an outsider.

If it helps, here’s at least one person willing to be a member of your tribe of people who care about evidence-based reality.

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