why stories matter

I’m knee-deep in Taleb’s Black Swan and must first acknowledge that I’ve only made it about a third of the way through as I write this, so it’s entirely possible that he covers what I’m about to discuss later on. I’ve been thinking quite a bit about a part in which he writes of the problems that arise from misguided black swans, or the human reaction to tragedy and sensationalization. He gives quite a few examples, but the gist of it is that we fear the things we hear about, the things that are reported on and have stories behind them and the things we can give a cause to, regardless of the probability of their occurrence. This is true. Most of us are more fearful in an airplane than a car, even though the statistics might guide us to feel otherwise. This is because (again– for a large majority of people– not everyone) crashing planes and tragic deaths have been flashed in front of us with more frequency and anxiety than the realities of vehicular accidents.

Taleb, it feels, argues that this is a fundamental flaw to journalism and to the way we understand the world. The narratives we are given are rarely all that accurate, fail to recognize black swans, and fall into the trap of sought-after linearity that doesn’t exist. One striking example is of 9/11 and the way it changed the way most Americans understand their safety and the threats they face, even though Taleb argues that after it happened, the chance of something similar happening arguably decreases. I think this argument is much more nuanced than he recognizes. He blames stories, and the way a country might obsess over a single missing child when there are millions of other problems and people in peril. This is the power of a story.

I’m no stranger to the notion that journalism is distorted by the incentives of profit, however I disagree with the idea that there’s some piece of ignorance that misguides the consumers of stories. Perhaps I don’t have the luxury, or desire, to think on the level of existence that Taleb does regarding this issue, but as far as I’m concerned, as flawed as they may be, stories matter. While the predicament of collective action is overwhelming, the opinions of a group are important. I recognize that while the world in which we exist is made up of shoddy fictions, those fictions have power over us, and to pretend otherwise is (pardon my pun) rather preten(d)tious. A story of a missing child that is a black swan in its popularity and airtime is likely taking time away from more relevant and pressing issues, however a story following a child separated from his parents by a militaristic US immigration policy is necessary, relevant, and powerful. Yes, the story may draw conclusions that are unnecessary, and it may land on causes that fail to scratch the surface, but to live in the dark is no better.

I read a piece in Foreign Policy today about the role of fear in the current administration, and policies that harm the most innocent and vulnerable in our world. It made me think of a quote (attributed, without certainty, to Stalin) Taleb cites that goes something along the lines of ‘one death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic’. I understand the relevance of this idea to what Taleb is saying, however I think the argument that follows (the one I wrote of earlier) should lead to a different place. It should tell us that we need to make things real in order for them to matter. We connect with people, we connect with heart-wrenching stories of real schools and the students inside them, and how they are affected by fear-driven, hate-filled, white-nationalistic policies. The statistics will be staggering, but as humans we rely on connections with others.

It’s up to consumers and readers to decide exactly which stories deserve sensationalization. As I’ve written about and chewed on quite a lot, stories matter a lot to me. Taleb would slap my knuckles with a ruler as I write this if he were here, but I very sincerely believe that stories make up who we are. Sure, they lack linearity, and human memory has a way of distorting reality. Sure, they exaggerate some of the greatest flaws of how we think as a species, but unless we all have the luxury of a black swan of our own (as Taleb did), we need to live in the world, and to lift up and think about the stories and lives of those around us as we do so.