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Who created the story your group believes?

For the past two weeks I’ve been discussing the stories of the mind on this page: the stories that our narrating self propagates and embellishes, in defiance of our experiencing self – the one that records facts and stays objective. The narrating self holds sway most of the time – and that makes us vulnerable to protracted self-delusion.

Let’s complete the trio of columns this week by focusing on a different set of stories – the ones we tell each other in groups.

The inestimable Seth Godin seems to write about marketing, but he really writes about the meaning of life. In his latest tome, This Is Marketing, he has a chapter entitled ‘People Like Us Do Things Like This.’ In it he reaffirms what I have been writing here for two weeks: ‘Everyone always acts in accordance with their internal narratives.’

The real question he asks, though, is this: where does that narrative come from, and how can we change it?

The answer: only a few people are strong enough to form their own personal narratives. Most folks get their narratives from others – from their desire to fit in, and from a need to affirm their status in society. Why do (many) people eat chicken, but won’t eat insects? There may not be much objective difference in the two – but Seth points out that our eating choices mostly come from the dominating thought: people like me eat things like this.

If the prevailing narrative is that it is smart to spend $1,000 on a phone – then you will aspire to have one. If the accepted line is that it is stupid – then you won’t. Those who shape the group narrative shape the actions of the group. Those selling cheaper handsets will sell the ‘stupid’ argument; those who sell the pricey ones will do the opposite. Who will win? Those with the better story, and therefore the greater group impact.

The stories that dominate the group dominate many things. Suppose the story in your ethnic group is that people like them are bad because they do things like that. That story may have been founded on some truth, a long time ago, in an isolated incident. But if the story is fanned and exaggerated and retold over the generations, then you have the bizarre situation of one group hating another one bitterly for no real reason at all. At least none that matters in the current place and time.

If you accept the story in your socio-economic group that people like us drive cars like those; or people like me send their children to schools like those; or people like me don’t pay for TV content; then a whole bunch of spending patterns have been changed.

Group narratives can have even bigger consequences. Once upon a time we may have accepted the prevailing narrative that corruption is a bad thing, that it entrenches poverty and retards development. In those days we would have all spoken out against corruption and shunned those guilty of it. But if that narrative is changed, insidiously, we might end up with a shocking group story: that graft is not such a bad thing; that everyone does it; that it’s just human nature. And if that’s the story, then why not me.

If such a narrative catches on, it takes a generation or more to unravel the damage to society. It will involve major upheavals and legal changes that may not even be widely supported, because the story that corruption ain’t so bad if you can get some of it for yourself might still hold strong. Then the narrative will only really change when the negative consequences are too obvious, too widespread and too serious to be ignored.

Which group stories are guiding your spending, your choices, your votes, your faith, your behaviours? Who came up with that story, when, and why? You may be shocked to find the extent to which you are being manipulated. The only ones who can resist the stories of their fraternities are the ones with minds strong enough to refuse to herded by groupthink and choreographed by those with junk to sell.

We ignore group narratives at our peril. That is why I am in my 17th year of writing this column. You, too, should not leave the shaping of our common stories to the worst amongst us.

(Sunday Nation, 31 March 2019)

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