In the Wake of the Paris Attacks, the Power of Stories

Stories are how humans make sense of the world. It is perhaps our most distinctive trait. The long line of human ancestors is marked by species named after one trait or another: homo erectus was the first to stand up, homo habilis was believed to be the first maker of stone tools. Our own species carries the name homo sapiens – or “the wise man”. It is undoubtably an aspirational title.

One could argue that we should instead be called “storytelling man” – and indeed there are many scientists who insist that it was our ability to develop language and the corresponding ability to coordinate and cooperate that most dramatically sets us apart from our nearest competitors.

I suspect that my dog also has stories. He must conceptualize my wife and me in some way. The squeaky toy has clearly been marked as an enemy. I’m sure he has a theory of the world and his place in it. (He is, after all, my dog.) What he cannot do is tell those stories. Humans can, and do. The fundamental moral and political act is the act of storytelling. The world without stories is inert; with stories it is trembling with possibility.

When we understand our families, our communities, and even our place within the natural and social world, we are inevitably telling stories. But the common phrase ‘just a story’ makes us bashful, and so we invent ways to dress up the concept in garbs ornate enough to be paraded in public. For example, scientists don’t often talk of stories; instead they talk of ‘models’ – but they’re essentially the same thing. Models are just stories told with great detail and often with numbers. Good models are stories that happen to be, in some important sense, true.

When we think of the past, we always tell stories. When we want to be entertained, we call them tales, when we want to be awed we call them myths, when we want to feel serious we call them history. They’re all stories, and some happen to be, in some important sense, true.

The terrorist attacks that shook Paris last Friday gave the world a stark reminder of the power of narrative. The attackers were, without doubt, motivated by stories. They and those like them tell themselves and others stories about the past and stories about the future. Those stories give them the conviction, motivation, and group cohesion with which to kill and maim and die. They are dark, troubled, and twisted stories. But they are also stories that must contain some grains of truth – otherwise they truly would be ‘just stories’. They would be inert, but they are not.


When explaining terrorism, progressives like to point to structural features. During the Democratic debate on Saturday, Senator Bernie Sanders emphasized the role global warming plays in increasing terrorism. That was perhaps more daft than usual, but it is of a mind with a school of thought that emphasizes the principle role of disadvantage and oppression. Alternatively, the right likes to emphasize the role of ideology – or the way in which structural conditions are translated into a coherent system of understanding; the transformation of disadvantage into grievance. They like to point to the fact that when confronted with adversity, there are viable options available other than militancy aimed at civilians.

Both, of course, are right and wrong. We do not have to tell ghost stories, but a ghost story is always scarier around a campfire.

I’m not going to spend any more time here on the puzzle of what drives terrorists – there have been enough efforts to do that and there will be time to add to those efforts in the future. But it is worth taking a moment to realize and emphasize that our enemies are not the only ones who tell stories. When we are attacked and we find our world engulfed in flames, what stories do we tell?

Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida and a hopeful candidate for the GOP nomination, has been making noise in the last week with a favorite story. The basic framework of the story is timeless, but in its current form, Mr. Rubio first heard the story from the late Samuel Huntington and it goes something like this: the West and the Islamic world represent incompatible worldviews, which leads inevitably to a clash of civilizations.

It is, oddly, a comforting story. It speaks, ironically, to the same sectarian impulses that motivate Islamic terrorists. It is a totalizing story – making monoliths out of both us and our enemies, reaffirming the value of community boundaries, and inspiring the desire to protect our homeland against an outsider threat. It is the kind of story that brings people together and helps them collaborate. It is, in other words, the first story: we are we, they are they, and either we defeat them or they will defeat us.

Mr. Rubio put it exactly in so many words: “This is a clash of civilizations…there is no middle ground…either they win or we win.”

He is, in important ways, not wrong. When someone is trying to kill you, you must either stop them or die. But the decision to frame the fight as one between civilizations should give us pause – it is, after all, the same framing device preferred by the terrorists. It is also deeply degrading and dismissive of the millions of Muslims who pray to their God and believe in their faith in ways that are not dissimilar from the ways in which Mr. Rubio’s supporters pray and believe. Mr. Rubio, after all, has taken to reminding voters that ISIS has a penchant for crucifying Christians. There is a reason he is doing that. It’s the same reason that Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush have emphasized that the United States should focus its efforts on taking in Christian – and not Muslim – refugees.

Sectarianism is a widely distributed trait.

After 9/11, Americans began to tell a very specific story: they hate us for our freedom. It was a simple and comforting story, but the best thing that could be said about it is that it was incomplete. We would have responded better as a country if we had instead told ourselves a more detailed and nuanced story, a story that made space for the complexity of the forces that shape our world.

The stories humans tell represent the biggest point of leverage that we as a species have over the world we live in. The flip side of that is that the shortcomings of those stores also represent the boundaries of meaningful action.

Let’s tell better stories.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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