From top: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; Heber Rowan
Stories. We love to hear them. We love to watch them, digest them and get enthralled by them in whatever format they present themselves to us.
Some are fictions we are able to discern as real or not. Say Harry Potter or a Stephen King novel. Some are the kind that makes us question our very reality. In some ways, that’s good.
Art is all about expressions of the world differently, it can teach you a new way of reconciling a problem in your life or dealing with emotional pain. Great. Good.
Stories are a currency that defines our behaviours. The ones you believe are the ones that you often find close to your own sense of comfort or cynism about the wider world.
In a sense, you believe in the logic of them and get attracted to the characters going against the conflict that they find themselves within. You are compelled to find out more, you want to find out what happens in the end.
A powerful story takes us away from reality.
In an era of information from the internet, those stories can make our understanding of what is real and what is not, harder. It can become easy to forget what is in need of further questioning or probing because the story you read or the facts that present themselves in a particular pattern are compelling.
We can lose track of our own systematic doubt or the application of Occam’s razor to the issue or story. That matters.
When we find something that makes us think we are empowered and respected for having our opinions, we feel validated and empowered. That matters for society as a whole as fundamentally we want to feel esteemed by our community.
It is how, in a sense, laws are upheld by public consensus or how we agree that the sky is, in fact, blue and not green. It is one of the higher needs in Maslow’s hierarchy.
When our emotions are high, we will often let go of our critique of the stories we find every day and allow ourselves to get taken in by them. It could be to rationalise, ‘despite him beating me, I know he still loves me’ in an abusive marriage or to entertain a snake oil cure as an answer to an acute illness you can’t cure.
Fear and love are powerful forces on the spectrum of human emotions. They drive what information we accept or not.
The power of fear?
When our world becomes enraptured by a ubiquitous state of fear from a global pandemic, we are more at risk of believing an exotic explanation for it because we are in a state of fear.
Emotions aside, it is also because we as human beings we have a natural ability to spot patterns in nature. That is great for understanding that prints in a forest may lead you to the deer you hunt but it is not a great ability to reconcile the overload of information in a world where we are saturated with information online daily.
Many have said that and it will be said again. So, forever bar the human race becoming emotionless like Vulcans as depicted in the science fiction series, Star Trek. Our emotions will make us believe in extraordinary things.
Rational irrationality ?
That being said, it is important to consume stories, they are entertaining and informative for us all. We like the escapism of Lord of the Rings or the thought that a magical world not unfamiliar to our own, could exist such as in Harry Potter. The boy living under the stairs could indeed, be magical.
Yet, the important thing is that when we look at those stories, we hold them in context. That we suspend our disbelief appropriately for the right amount of time to enjoy the flow of the story. Sometimes that doesn’t happen in quotidian life.
Emotions are pesky things that make us different individuals and behave differently.
Within the context of the Covid19 crisis, there is a lot of conspiracy talk circulating online. Many are compelling in a way the end of a thriller of a John Grisham novel can be. International espionage, manipulation of information, social engineering and the movement of trillions of dollars globally. Dam interesting and compelling.
We like figuring out puzzles in the world around us, to account for the whys and hows of forces in our lives that we can’t easily rationalise. For millennia, we were unable to figure out why the winds came one day and the rain the next.
We created stories to understand them to bridge the gap between our emotional reactions to the trauma of experiencing a flood or famine with our ability to logically understand something. It’s in our nature.
Life will change in the post Covid19 world. No doubt. There are many aspects of that forthcoming change we can reasonably predict like increased remote working among office workers or a medium-term decrease in demand for leisure cruises internationally.
How we trust our sources of information and maintain a healthy level of critique when death becomes less of an abstraction going forward, is the change that really matters.
The information floodgates are open.
Journalism is changing, advertisements for publications are down dramatically as the marketplace for information has become more competitive from the internet. How do people balance their fears and maintain a healthy level of disbelief will determine how the future manifests.
To believe that the Covid19 virus was created in a lab by the Chinese or some cabal of the world’s pharmaceutical companies is a compelling story. It tells us what we fear or want to know, that some people are making money and that there is a greater explanation for why terrible and dramatic things are happening.
As emotional beings, we might overlook uncomfortable facts in the process that those who ‘let us in’ on these great truths are doing so for want of power and validation in the wider world.
Also money. Heavens let’s not forget the money.
Yes, pharmaceutical companies make enormous profits and have vested interests in maintaining their businesses but they also provide benefits to the world by eradicating different diseases.
We look at stories of profiteering companies starting lawsuits after people in Italy 3D printed ventilator valves and think, ‘that’s plain wrong’.
Yes, there are unethical companies out there and yes there is a lot we can be genuinely resentful of such as expensive drugs only having a marginal benefit of 2–3% over a placebo.
However, in becoming angry at those situations, we can lose sight of the bigger picture. That the 2–3% of those drugs can make a world of a difference to those who need it and that scientific progress is incremental at best.
Rarely do we find cures or solutions to issues within one attempt. It can take years, decades of ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ for science to deliver results we universally respect and accept without question.
Not everything is complicated in life.
The preventative behaviour of washing your hands is NOT a conspiracy by soap companies: no it is established preventative medicine to limit the spread of infections. It is why there will be likely fewer deaths in 2020 from the common flu virus than other years as people adapt their behaviour.
Those heralding truths online will say that such statistics are twisted and that there is much you shouldn’t believe even if your own eyes and ears tell you otherwise. That’s dangerous and can result in dramatic shifts of power.
What does matter, is that we maintain our respect for those with competence and years of education before we swallow compelling narratives because we fear them or want to believe them.
The ‘tyranny of the experts’ is in debate right now as many governments around the world look to the guidance of health professionals to understand the most effective approaches to dealing with this crisis.
Some countries welcome this approach understanding that this is not a time for politics. That the realities of planning out mass graves are unavoidable in a way debating macroeconomic policy is traditionally, not.
The results of the virus are visible within the lives of many. People are dying and behaviour has changed. That’s understandably difficult to reconcile as people become frustrated at their lack of agency with those restrictions.
What matters is that people accept that sometimes, even if it is once every hundred years, pandemics do happen naturally and we are, as a planet, making our solutions as we go along.
A hundred years ago there was undeniably no genetic engineering of the Spanish Flu. It just happened and the world took years to deal with it.
So to conclude, stories do matter in our lives. Some entertain us for an evening as we suspend our disbelief, others make us forget that sometimes a simple explanation is often the actual explanation. When we inevitably come across compelling stories understanding the Covid19 crisis, it is important to remind ourselves that those who tell us such stories often have interests of their own they portray as virtuous.
Indeed, those who call something “propaganda” might actually be creating their own because they know we will believe any story if we fear it or want it enough to be true. Remind yourself of that with whatever story you encounter in this crisis.
That’s the most important thing for us to do aside from washing our hands.
Heber Rowan is a Sligo native with a passion for politics. He works in public affairs and enjoys listening to and narrating audiobooks. He can be found on Twitter and occasionally blogs on Medium.com.