Storytelling and the Human Condition

Dear reader,

There's been an interesting ongoing thread running through the econ blogosphere on the power and perils of storytelling.  Tyler Cowen opened with a fascinating TedX talk, going for the intellectual juggular by arguing that narrative has the power to make us stupid:
Again, we're imposing order on the mess we observe, and it's taking the same patterns, and when something is in the form of a story, often we remember it when we shouldn't... every time you tell the good vs. evil story... you're lowering your IQ by ten points or more.
Will Wilkinson joins in on the IQ train, arguing that political labels make us again stupid:
People call me libertarian but I don't in part because I'm not one, but mostly because I suspect that accepting any such label dings my IQ about 15 points.
Then Bryan Caplan responded, with characteristic economist realpolitik:
Aren't there intellectual risks of accepting labels and good-versus-evil stories?  Sure.  Labels can blind us to counter-evidence.  Good-versus-evil stories give us an excuse to damn the messenger instead of considering his message.  But the wise response is to strive to compensate for these specific risks - not to salute the intellectual equivalent of the Swiss flag.  Indeed, when you really think about it, labels and good-versus-evil stories are unavoidable.  Will's implicit label is "label-avoidism."  Tyler's implicit good-versus-evil story is "the never-ending war between the good people who don't believe in good-versus-evil stories and the evil people who do."

The art of storytelling evidences deep, almost axiomatic facets of the human condition.  We humans are a curious animal, delighting in the search for reasons.  We love to abstract meaning from our lives and share it with others -- hence the need to tell stories.  

That always struck this Stag Staffer as the deep knot in this human riddle.  Having spent the better part of a year in a fellowship predicated on building "awareness" of the biases storytelling and the underlying symbolic process engenders, he has been all too cognizant that the maps we make necessarily are not the territory they describe.

Yet we live in a world of the maps that we make.  Thought, perception, experience -- these are but arrows along our symbolic cartographies, lines we impose in an attempt to assert order on an unforgiving sea of signifiers.

And no matter how acute our awareness, we cannot change that landscape, nor the inherently personal perspective through which we sail that sea.  From Steinbeck's titanic East of Eden: 

“No story has power, nor will it last, unless we feel in ourselves that it is true and true of us. What a great burden of guilt men have!”

Whatever amount of faith one puts in the Christian tradition, there are deep reasons original sin continues to ripple through the consciousness of human civilization.  And yet, flowing beneath such waves, is an enduring tide of hope:

…this was the gold from our mining: 'Thou mayest.' The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin (and you can call sin ignorance). The King James translation makes a promise in 'Thou shalt,' meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word timshel—'Thou mayest'—that gives a choice. For if 'Thou mayest'—it is also true that 'Thou mayest not.'  That makes a man great and that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.