Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What’s really happening

A story about stories

There is a fundamental paradox that we are all vaguely aware of, even if we haven’t quite articulated it to ourselves.  Unlike the paradoxes of physics and philosophy, which we may never personally encounter, this paradox resides right under our noses.  More specifically, it resides right at the tip of our tongue.  It also buzzes incessantly right between our ears, being the fabric out of which even our internal monologue is woven.    It is the paradox of storytelling—the holy trinity of the story, its teller, and its audience. 

When I say storytelling you probably think of the sorts of storytelling done by professionals such as Twain or Poe, or the kind that is performed to a group sitting around a campfire or a dinner table.  And I do mean those; but I don’t mean only those.  I mean storytelling as grand as telling the story of our cosmic origins, or as minute as silently but persistently telling ourselves what it is we are thinking about at the moment…and everything in between.

We are all storytellers.

Historians compose stories about civilization, the ideologies and innovations that compete and collaborate to form periods of stability, progress, and revolution.

The press and its journalists compose stories that amount to the history of “now”—events at the intersection of people, their roles, and the motivations that drive them to act according to their roles.

Biologists tell same sorts of stories as historians and journalists; the differences amount to ones of scope, with roles played by very different sorts of characters, the innovations of a much less teleological nature, and the motivations largely being those of survival.  But really these are not such dramatic differences after all.

Physicists tell causal stories about particles and their interactions.

Your mind tells stories about you, what you’re doing, what you have done, and what you plan to do.

How many stories are there?

We like to think of history as a continuous stream of goings-on.  So much so that we each tend to decide on one story and stick with it, quickly forgetting, ignoring or even deleting versions that don’t jive with it.  We all know it’s the winners that write the history books; this is true of the shared history written down in books as well as our personal histories written down in our stream of consciousness.  But if you’re really observant, you can sometimes spot multiple drafts of the same story before one get chosen and the other swept under the carpet. 

Case in point: the recent protests in Iran (video).  There are two major versions of the same events.  I’d like you to suspend judgment, if just for a moment, which version you believe.  (btw I’m going off this NY Times article)

Version #1: The Iranian government says that western countries helped orchestrated the protests, and that shots from the crowd struck and killed several people, including Ali Mousavi, the nephew of the opposition leader.

Version #2: The people in the street says that the protests were peaceful, but that revolutionary guard soldiers violated the rules of the holy day by shooting into the crowd, possibly even assassinating the nephew of the opposition leader.

These two versions of the story seem completely incompatible.  How can one person ever believe both at the same time?  How can it be decided which version is a “factual” account of the events?  Most likely what will happen is that one group of people will believe one version, and another will believe the other.  Whichever story gets believed by more people in the end will survive and become the “official” account, the other will pretty much die away.

What’s the real story, and who gets to tell it?

And now for the paradox. 

We all know that there are many sides to a story.  And so it makes sense to say that there is no one real story of what really happened.  There are only versions of stories, which are unavoidably colored by who is telling them and who they are being told to. 

But on the other hand, to say that there is no privileged version of what really happened—there is no plain and simple truth, no bare fact of the matter—seems totally crazy. 

I think this paradox, just like any paradox worth its mettle, is inherently unresolvable.  But that does not make it a dead end.  Keeping this paradox in mind helps us remember that we may always be wrong about even the things we’re most certain of.  I think this is a crucial step—perhaps THE crucial step—towards the peaceful resolution of conflict.