The forest is bathed in moonlight, thick with the scent of pine, and alive with the crackle and ketchup smell of oak ablaze in a circle of stones, the sparks flying up into the night sky to create temporary constellations.
Mister Fox takes an apple, runs a stick through its core, and holds it out over the flames. “Once upon a time” he creatively begins, “Zeus, Jehovah, and Odin walked into a bar. “Why the long faces?” asks the bartender, a tall skinny fellow with white hair and an Irish brogue. Zeus orders a bottle of Ouzo and says “Human freaking beings. They stole my most powerful magic — the ability to make fire.” “Oy, says Jehovah, you think you’ve got problems,” as he ordered a bottle of wine. “To steal fire, they needed to know what fire was. And they know THAT because they stole my most powerful magic: knowledge.” Odin orders a beer and stays quiet. The bartender leans in and says “Uh, Odin, this is the part of the story where you one-up them and deliver the punchline. Odin? Odin?” Mister Fox gives us a nod, bites the apple, and produces a very cold beer he has somehow conjured out of nothing, and offers us a sip….
Prometheus stole fire from the Gods. Adam and Eve ate of the tree of knowledge. But in Norse mythology, it was the Mead of Poetry — the ability to tell stories — which humanity distilled from a God’s stolen gift.
The Norse chose wisely.
Stories are the invisible architecture of the human world. Let me repeat that: Stories are the invisible architecture of the human world. Until you take the red pill and realise this simple fact, Neo, you will never be truly free.
Most of the stories that govern our lives are so ancient, so burned-in to our psyche, that we forget they are stories.
The days of the week are stories — monkeys are not happy on Friday, Giraffes don’t get the Monday blues. All of us accept, unquestioning, the story that there are 7 days in a week and their cycle resets on Sunday. And that story frames the way we think about an entire day, and even our sense of the possible. What seems possible on a Tuesday may be very different from what seems possible on a Sunday.
But there are bigger stories that also shape our lives — the story of justice, of equality, the story of money, of corporations, the story of Democracy or the 6 major religions. All of these stories are what Yuval Harrari calls “inter-subjective imagined orders.” They have no physical or biological truth — they were all created and agreed by human beings and only exist as long as human beings keep believing in them.
They are mythologies: stories kept alive by retelling, made stronger by rituals, amplified through social proof.
I’ve recently read “Sapiens” — Harrari’s sweeping history of the species, which might have been subtitled “A history of story.” He covers some of the same ground that Jonathan Haidt went over in The Righteous Mind, but brings it to life in new ways. What made humans the most successful species on the planet was our ability to unify and organise small groups around stories that we made up to define a common purpose — the story of the hunters of the tribe, the story of the gods of the seasons that helped us grow food, the story of a pyramid to protect the pharaoh’s soul, the story of a nation, in which each of us is a character, in which each of us plays a role.
His retelling of the invention of the limited company in 19th century is brilliant. It was sorcery — a powerful magician, in this case, a lawyer, utters a magic spell with powerful words he writes on paper and creates an entity from thin air and says this entity is going to borrow money. It’s not ME borrowing money, it’s this thing I just created. And if it fails, I’m not liable for its debts, because it wasn’t me that borrowed the money — it’s this thing I call a company. How good a trick was that? Enough people believed that sorcerer to breathe life into that being. And to this day, corporations exist because we accept the magical power of law that says they do, and that story has been reinforced over and over by retellings that make it stronger, that give it a permanence. Yet a corporation doesn’t exist. You can’t touch it. It exists nowhere but in our storytelling brains, just as every spire in the Manhattan skyline was once just a story on paper, just as the death of a mastodon was nothing but a story told around a fire in a cave that turned into a plan.
When I retell the story of Rosa Parks sitting in the front of a bus and so setting off a chain of events that created the civil rights act, I reinforce the story of progress, the story of equality, the story of justice, the story of the long arc of history. Every time a woman goes to the polls and tells someone they’re voting because they remember the scorn heaped upon Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her fellow sufferagettes, they participate in a ritual which reinforces the story of democracy.
Stories are the operating system of the human mind. They are the operating system of civilisation. And here’s some good news: they can be hacked.
When Kumi Naidoo was a young student activist fighting against Apartheid, he was part of a 100-year-long story of resistance to South Africa’s systemized discrimination. He was told his cause was just, but it was hopeless. South Africa in those days had no democratic system by which dissent could be openly expressed, no means of openly organising. The government commanded the largest military force on the African continent. South Africa was a wealthy and stable economic partner — no foreign government was going to interfere in their domestic policies at the expense of billions in trade.
But in the space of Kumi’s lifetime, that story changed. It was hacked not just by Steven Biko and Nelson Mandella and Desmond Tutu, but by Kumi’s white high school teacher, peering from out her door to make sure no police or neighbors were watching as she allowed a dissident student group to meet in her home. It was hacked by people in the west who started showing up at South African embassies to protest. It was hacked by individuals who joined the boycott on South African goods. And at some point, some magical point that every activist longs for, something changed: enough people came to believe that change was possible, that change BECAME possible. That’s the story of activism. As Bob Hunter once said, “big change looks impossible when you start, and inevitable when you finish.”
It’s because big change looks inevitable in hindsight that we forget the courage it once took to believe in it. To act for it. As we look back we think how primitive that anyone would forbid women from working or voting or segregate drinking fountains by the colour of someone’s skin or say with a straight face “all men are created equal” while excluding half the human race. Surely those customs would have eroded eventually and we would arrive in this enlightened time as surely as the sun rises and sets? No— change happens in society when a society wrestles with a contradiction, a clash of stories. How can we both believe that God created all men equal and yet also believe that African slaves are inferior? It’s then we enter the cultural thunderdome. Two stories enter, one story leaves. FIGHT!
Kumi’s story has always given Mister Fox hope. As we look out across the vast expanse of threats to human existence today — from climate change to nuclear war to an economic system that’s hungry enough to consume four times the Earth’s capacity … change seems impossible. And yet the moral of the story of activism is that nothing is impossible, and that individual acts of courage, no matter how foolhardy and naive they may seem in the face of certain defeat, can hack the story of the impossible into the story of the inevitable.