What Can Stories Do to Beliefs?

Why do we believe what we believe?

If you’re like most human beings, you think you believe what you believe because it’s rational and true. Many, many studies have shown, however, that while the things you believe MIGHT be both rational and true, that’s NOT why you believe them. You believe them, in essence, because it feels good to do so.

How, then, do our beliefs ever actually change? We human beings aren’t generally inclined to feel badly, even if the benefit of doing so might be a more accurate belief system. It’s my contention that the only thing that ever does really change someone’s beliefs is a well-told story. (The great losers here? Scientists, who’d prefer us to just be moved by evidence. Sorry, scientists. I feel ya.)

Unfortunately, most of the stories in the public discourse these days are not, to my estimation, very well-told. That is to say, I tend to think most writers are largely interested in saying something important, which is a fine way of connecting with people who already agree with you, but does very little for people who disagree. I think this is just as true of our our fiction and our drama as it is of our non-fiction writing.

We so rarely imagine that whomever is reading our work is different in any way. We write for ourselves, or we write — loosely speaking — against our not-selves, which is to say that we write to shout louder and more clearly than whatever different voices we are trying to drown out. We write to reinforce our own beliefs… which does very little, obviously, to change others’.

If we want to change others’ beliefs with our stories, I think we need to write with compassion and selflessness. We need to start by imagining — really imagining — how people might react to the stories we want to tell. And — this is important — how they might react to losing their beliefs.

I sometimes try to think of beliefs as pillows. On one hand, they’re both comforting and necessary. You can’t really rest properly without them. On the other hand, if you find yourself with the wrong pillow — too big, too thin, too soft, too hard, too old and worn — you can develop a stiff neck, a bad back, a distortion in your body. And eventually you cling to them, because you’ve adapted to their limitations, and switching back to a proper pillow (a more truthful belief) would make you have to adapt all over again.

So… how do you take somebody’s pillow away? How do you give them a different pillow? How do you change their beliefs?

I actually think the answer is: you don’t. You don’t walk up to someone and take their pillow away. You don’t sneak in while they’re sleeping and slip it out from under their head; they’ll wake up pissed. You don’t tell them over and over again how bad their pillow is until they finally agree with you. They love that pillow, immensely, even if it’s terrible, and they’ll fight to keep it.

Instead, I think we need to create the conditions in which people will be inspired to change to a new pillow — a new belief — of their own volition. To do that, we first have to empathize with them: to understand the emotional appeal of the beliefs they hold, without judging them for holding those beliefs. Then we need to show them people like themselves making a genuine, realistic belief transformation… and trust that they’ll use the story as a model if it makes sense.

At this point, I should probably make a confession: I’m not exactly sure how I’d go about doing this myself in some cases. Let me offer an example.

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about evangelist David Barton. (If you don’t want to click that link, he’s essentially a lying revisionist historian who claims that the founding fathers intended us to live in an explicitly Christian country.) This is a person who holds radically different beliefs than I hold. His evangelizing, furthermore, is keeping those beliefs alive, because he tells a compelling story. I’m guessing (conservatively), but there are probably millions of Americans who share those beliefs… even though they’ve been thoroughly discredited by anyone with any serious historical or political bona fides. His ideas clearly feel good to people, even though they’re dreadfully incorrect. And, in my opinion, evil. (They feel awful to me.)

Bottom line: I consider those ideas cancerous, and I consider David Barton the means by which that cancer grows and replicates and destroys the body politic. My first thought in dealing with cancer? Emergency surgery, naturally. I have to admit to advocating, when I discovered this guy, for him to be silenced. It was a knee-jerk reaction, yes, but even after a bit of consideration, I still thought: better to shut him up and prevent the lies from spreading.

But here’s the thing about cancer: if you can’t get it all, it’s always going to come back. You need clean margins and a deft surgical hand. And that’s just not possible here. So what are the options?

How else do we treat cancer? Vaccines, in some cases. The HPV vaccine, for example, prevents cervical cancer. Similarly, I think we need to inoculate children against Barton’s nonsense by providing them a sound education that teaches, more than anything else, how to reason from evidence. No vaccine is perfect, but I think that would at least protect as many young people as possible. Let’s do it.

For those who’ve already developed cancer — those for whom a vaccine is too late — there’s also radiation and chemotherapy. We bathe a tumor with waves of light and chemicals in an attempt to destroy it. This is the equivalent, for me, of articles like the one I’ve linked to above: refutations of Barton’s ideas that serve to bring him out into the light of public attention and, presumably, ridicule. (“Sunshine,” my friend Lewis Francis likes to say, “is the best disinfectant.”) And I agree that sort of thing is useful… but it also comes with collateral damage. Just as radiation and chemotherapy take a toll on a healthy body, the arguments that arise from refutations of false ideas tend to propagate discord in America. They really hurt.

What I’m hoping is that we can invent some sort of third option: a genetic therapy, perhaps. A technique that will work its way into every cancerous cell and re-write its DNA, rendering it either inert or sterile, or (if necessary) causing it to self-destruct.

This, for me, is what I hope stories can do. Well-told stories. We just need to figure out how.

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