Storytelling



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Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin …

We’re all constantly telling stories; from personal mythology, to collective folklore. They are the way in which we breathe meaning into things. They bring sense, and direction. They guide us, tell us which steps to take, and when. Sometimes we update them, or rewrite them. Sometimes we scrap them and start anew.

A story is akin to a constellation, something that brings together what was separate; from atoms, to planets, to human beings. Stories are what bind us; they get us moving in the same direction; promote cohesion, and harmony. ‘Tribe’ is another way of saying ‘a shared story.’ When a story is shared it becomes a truth, at least among those who share it. But what was yesterday considered a truth, may today be considered a delusion.

In times gone by a collective story - a story of the people - would be commonplace. The stronger this story - the greater its reach and influence - the stronger was the collective. A shared story is a place in which to live, offering shelter from the whirling confusion and maddening incoherence of the outside world. Of course, in erecting walls it also places limits; and those societies with the strongest stories also have the firmest boundaries.

Without a shared story, a group is no more than a collection of individuals. In an environment like this, individual stories take precedent. No longer bound by the imperatives of the group, each individual is free to move in whatever direction they wish, and the synchronised choreography of the collective gives way to the freeform improvisation of the individual.

Society is, then, a collection of stories; from personal fiction to collective folklore. Whilst our modern societies are increasingly individualistic, the individual story has not gained total precedent. As long as we wish to be more than isolated units, then we will always need stories to bind us. 

However, the kind of overarching fiction that defined traditional collectives doesn’t seem to be so common today, due perhaps in part to the scale and diversity of our societies. Whereas once an entire society would have been bound by a single fiction, this unity has since fractured. Yet, whilst ‘grand narratives’ may not be fashionable, we still have our various tribes: from those that believe in the stories of holy books, to those that believe in the stories of science books.

We may, then, have our short stories; but we’re certainly no longer all on the same page. This lack of a common story has created a vacuum in which new stories compete for dominion. One tribe claims it has the story, whilst another rubbishes its claims and offers its gospel. There is also a growing chorus of individual voices, each offering their own interpretation on how things are, and what we should believe. This blog is one example among many.

From scientific theorists, to religious theorists; from pulpit to blog post; from expert to amateur: stories abound. Our age faces us with a confusion of tales to choose from. How, then, do we do our choosing?

From canon to conspiracy

In the diagram opposite I’ve pictured a society as a series of concentric circles, the largest of which define its boundaries. To transcend this boundary is to step outside of the society. 

The inner circles represent the differing voices within the society, or the differing stories advocated by these voices. I’ve offered real life examples of the kind of voices that you could be exposed to within my own society, here in England. I offer these examples based on the kind of things these voices generally say, which isn’t to say that they are forever anchored at certain points on the spectrum. David Icke’s trajectory attests to this.

At the centre we have voices that seem to be widely accepted. They espouse ‘mainstream’ stories and are exemplified by the Prime Minister who, being the focal point of officialdom, is an arbiter of official truths. If, for instance, the Prime Minister were to suddenly veer off-piste and start spouting ‘conspiracy theories’ then this could lead to one of two things: either the Prime Minister would be ousted from their role, or; the conspiracy theories would be accepted as mainstream truths. Because the role itself does not allow a condoning of fringe fiction, either the stories must move inwards, or the person move outwards.

As we move further out the voices become less mainstream and more contentious; bringing us to the niche stories of the ‘lunatic fringe,’ as exemplified by the likes of David Icke. One of the many reasons that David Icke could not be Prime Minister is because he holds beliefs that are entirely incompatible with the current set of accepted core truths.

From centre to outskirts

In all things there is a pull towards dissolution, and an opposite pull towards unification. This tug of war is everywhere, at all scales; from a society, to the bodies that make up that society, to the cells that make up those bodies. It is the interchange between life and death.

We can describe a society, much like the nucleus of an atom, as a centre of attraction; which is another way of saying a centre of life. To be part of a society is to be within its field of attraction. So whilst those near the outside may appear to be opposed to many of the central truths of the society, it still exerts a pull upon them, albeit a comparatively weak one. They have not left the society, and are still a part of it, if only minimally.

The centre of a society is where its attraction is at its strongest. It is the area of greatest overlap and, therefore, of greatest consensus; and is where its accepted truths reside. These are popular fictions, hardened into granite-like truths through endless repetition. They're generally regarded as self-evident, and so are rarely questioned. They are deeply rooted and not easily displaced.

The further we move from the core, the weaker its pull becomes. Those voices at its centre are less diverse because its core truths - those fundamental stories that bind it - are exerting more of an influence. As with our example of the Prime Minister, voices must align with these truths or move further out. You cannot, generally speaking, be a mainstream voice whilst rejecting mainstream truths; or at least, not insofar as you pose a threat to the status quo.

Like any centre of life, be it a galaxy, a planet, or a human being, a society exists by preserving its core fictions. For instance, an important part of the story of ‘liberal democracies’ is that every person within that society ought to be granted free speech. Another is the belief that democracy is the best system of governance. If these fictions were ousted by counter-fictions, then the society would cease to exist (in its current form at least) morphing into something else instead. It is fictions such as these that separate liberal democracies from, say, illiberal autocracies.

Consider your own personal fictions, those strands that thread together to make you who you are. Which of these, and how many, would have to change before you became someone you no longer recognised?

A society is, therefore, most conservative at its centre. If we see a society as a point of life, attracting things toward it, then its core is the focal point of this attraction; the point that pulls towards unification, and life. And life is, essentially, a conservative process, a combining of things.

Those that reside nearest the centre will, then, tend to be more interested in preserving and defending its core truths. As I’ve mentioned, these voices tend to be more homogenous because they ‘tow the company line’ and are less interested in questioning collective assumptions or exploring alternatives. It is, after all, not in their job description. Every collective - every structure - needs those individuals that guard its premises and work to keep it structurally sound, and these people fulfil that role. They are its antibodies, working to conserve the status quo.

Icke himself refers to this area as the ‘postage stamp consensus’ alluding to its narrow range of voices. However, having polarised himself at the fringes - having cast his anchor at a certain location - he views things in a rather one-sided way. In choosing a side he is unable to transcend the binary itself and see the value of both sides. When he talks of his opposite, of the central area of society, he uses embattled language. He does not talk of its value, or even seem to recognise that it has a value. In this he mirrors the way that the centre tends to talk about people like him, on the fringes.

The further we move from the centre of attraction the weaker its pull becomes, and the less influence its core truths have upon people. This leads to a greater diversity of voices, especially around the fringes. This is the place that entertains heretics and blasphemers, iconoclasts and dissenters. Core truths are handled roughly, without reverence; are tested to the point of failure. Once their shells are cracked their fictional nature is exposed. What was once objective and beyond question, becomes subjective and questionable.

If the core is the conscious mind of a society, then the fringes are its unconscious. As with our own unconscious, the outer limits breed alternatives to the status quo; and whilst they can pose a threat to the prevailing order, they also serve as a source of rejuvenation and creativity. After all, many of a societies core truths will have started life in the shadows of the lunatic fringe (let us not forget that at one point the world was flat). Destruction and creation go hand in hand; the fringe threatens the centre - unconscious threatens ego - but also balances it. One could not exist without the other - although in truth, both are part of the same process.

In my diagram I’ve marked out five concentric circles, illustrating a relatively diverse range of voices; from the very conservative to the very dissentious; a diversity that seems to show a large degree of permissiveness - when it comes to speech at least. Indeed, I think that my society, as with other Western democracies, can be characterised by its lack of boundaries; it does not erect the kind of towering perimeter walls that we see when we look at other, less permissive, cultures.

Its worth bearing in mind that we’re talking about freedom of speech, not freedom of action. When it comes to action, we are certainly much more limited. As Gene Ray reminds us, “one may question the bourgeois paradigm, only not in any way that is effective or has results; one may play with the symbols of radical politics, but one must not act on them; anyone can say the emperor has no clothes or even scream it within the closed walls of a gallery, but no one may cut off his head.”

So more freedom means more diversity. If there are no walls to stop them, frontiersman will always be tempted to explore new territory. It is in their nature to pull away; to look for alternatives. In this they are analogous to the process of genetic mutation, allowing an organism to change and evolve in response to environmental demands. They maintain a critical amount of diversity, offering fresh insights when they are needed (and when they aren’t). They are the hand that stirs the sediments; the oil that prevents parts from seizing. If evolution is important to a society then it must allow its fringes to flourish; it must allow an area in which alternatives can be proposed. The fact that voices such as David Icke’s are permitted could be seen as a sign that our society currently allows this area, to some extent at least.

It’s worth noting that not all societies value the idea of evolution in the way that ours does, and accordingly these collectives tend not to allow the kind of permissiveness that characterises ours. For example, orthodox religious communities - such as the Amish - erect tall walls around their culture; and patrol these perimeters vigilantly.

If I were to draw my circular diagram for an Amish society, then it would likely consist of only one or two circles, as opposed to five. Theirs is a restrictive environment, in which certain things must not be said, as well as done. Yet, whilst I, peering in from a distance, may characterise it as restrictive, those on the inside will no doubt feel differently. Walls may confine, but they also protect. The Amish have managed to maintain a strong cultural identity in the face of powerful outside influences; due, in no small part, to their strong boundaries.

A chief concern of communities like these - and that faces any organism with a relatively narrow range of voices - is how to prevent stagnation. So whilst permissive societies must always guard against dissolution, restrictive societies must likewise guard against petrifaction.

Seeing through

I think that there are ‘truths’ at all levels, from the core to the fringes, and that whilst they may seem contradictory, each is vital to the other as part of a larger balance. Inasmuch as both central and fringe voices are crucial to this balance, then neither ought to be dismissed out of hand. Truths contradict; fictions do not.

I recognise that most of the things that I am talking about are very simple, and perhaps very obvious. I think that this conversation is important, not because it is original or revelatory, rather that it brings to mind a simple truth; one that, in an age of partisan polemic, of mass projection and scapegoating, we are apt to forget: that there is no ‘other’ out there, only parts of ourselves that we don’t yet know.

Carl Jung proposed that a whole and balanced individual is someone who is able to transcend a one-sided perspective and to see value in both sides of an opposition. In order to do this we must become multilingual, gaining an understanding of languages other than our own.

We see that the spectrum of voices is not only out there, but is also in here; and that to countenance ‘other’ voices, strange voices, is to shine light on our own dark recesses: a process that naturally leads to an enlargement of the self. Indeed, the word ‘development’ forms close kinship with words like ‘enlargement’ and ‘growth’, and is often associated with the image of ever increasing circles, or a radiating spiral. Returning to our diagram, it may be that a whole and balanced individual is one who is open to voices from all five circles, from the centre to the fringes - the conscious to the unconsious - and who is able to up anchor and voyage between them when necessary.

Jung described this enlargement as ‘individuation,’ a process of making the unconscious conscious. It is like fishing in a vast dark sea and dragging strange and sometimes horrible things to the surface. Instead of casting them back into the depths - away! be gone! - our task is to bring them closer, and accept that these things are our things. It is making the foreign, familiar; the blind spot a seen spot.

The more things we bring to the surface, the less repulsed we will be when we see them in others. If we can, for instance, find that part of ourselves that is open to outlandish theories then we will be more amenable to the likes of David Icke. We needn’t believe in his theories, but we also needn’t reject them out of hand, or condemn him for holding them.

Jung once went as far as to propose that the way to world peace was through this process of finding the other within the self. However, he also inferred that individuation isn’t for everyone; that for some it may be neither possible, nor appropriate. It may be that some of us must believe that the world is ‘real’ and not ‘fictional’; that stories are stories and truths are truths; that the game is a matter of life and death, and not just a game. It may be important that there are those of us who believe in the superiority of red, and ignore the virtues of blue; or vice versa.

But if this is the case, then it is equally important that there are those of us who can mediate this divide, by seeing through things to their relative, fictional nature. It is important that there are those who can listen to a wide range of voices within a society; who can fish their stories from the narrow banks of the mainstream, or the wide expanse of the lunatic sea. Lines of communication between opposing parties must always remain open, and emissaries must carry messages between them; lest they get it into their heads that the opposition really is evil and must, therefore, be wiped out.

Inasmuch as we live in an age of bitter antithesis, of diversity and fracturing, in which the stories that bind us are breaking down, or are already long gone, and in which new fault-lines appear daily; then the ability to see-through, and synergize, is vital.


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Psychologically speaking, so long as conscious and unconscious are enemies, the ego experiences itself in constant danger of death.

Once they are in harmony the ego experiences itself open and supported by the maternal matrix of love.

[Marion Woodman]
Addiction to Perfection, p. 42


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Part of what’s happening in the United States is an increasing conflict between people of different temperaments and we don’t really understand how to mediate between that anymore.

Those that are on the tolerant end of the political distribution tend to think of those who are their opposites as intolerant. But they’re not necessarily intolerant, they’re also justice seeking; and justice is one of the hands, according to Jung, that God uses to keep the world in balance.

Its a very rough situation in the political realm when either side of a temperamental distribution make the a priori proposition that their particular temperament stands for the only virtues that are dominant and ceases to talk to the other side.

One way across that divide is for each of us, depending on our particular political stance and perhaps our inbuilt biological temperament, to note very carefully that just because we think that the way we view the world is virtuous doesn’t mean it isn’t with its attendant vice, and it also doesn’t mean that all the vice that we don’t have stacks up on the other side of the political distribution.

Even in those moments where you think that you’re at your best and proclaiming virtues that you think are universal you may have a blind spot that makes it impossible to talk to people who don’t think the same way you do, and then you might frighten yourself after that realisation by coming to understand that people that you can’t talk to you can only fight with. And thats a bad outcome.

[Jordan B. Peterson]
'Tolerance as a vice'


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The Overton window, also known as the window of discourse, is the range of ideas the public will accept.

Overton described a spectrum from "more free" to "less free" with regard to government intervention, oriented vertically on an axis. As the spectrum moves or expands, an idea at a given location may become more or less politically acceptable. His degrees of acceptance of public ideas are roughly:
  • Unthinkable
  • Radical
  • Acceptable
  • Sensible
  • Popular
  • Policy
The Overton window is an approach to identifying which ideas define the domain of acceptability within a democracy's possible governmental policies. Proponents of policies outside the window seek to persuade or educate the public in order to move and/or expand the window. Proponents of current policies, or similar ones, within the window seek to convince people that policies outside it should be deemed unacceptable.

After Overton's death, others have examined the concept of adjusting the window by the deliberate promotion of ideas outside of it, or "outer fringe" ideas, with the intention of making less fringe ideas acceptable by comparison. The "door-in-the-face" technique of persuasion is similar.

'Overton window'


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Related posts:-
The Colour Wheel
Casting a Shadow
From Separation to Connection

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