We were all obsessed. I know I was. My friends and I steeped ourselves in a steady media diet of alien abductions, Bigfoot and Nessi sightings, haunted houses, extra sensory perception, ‘The Bermuda Triangle,’ and a half-dozen other supernatural phenomena. None of it was particularly hard to find in the late 70’s—they popped up in everything from grocery store magazines, questionable library ‘books,’ and TV specials. Our fervor hit new heights with the release of the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind (I remember repeated viewings, and deep identification with Richard Dryfus’ character). Ripley’s Believe it or Not was our Mecca.
Most of us were old enough to know that these phenomena were at least partly fictional, but there seemed to be something within each of us that compelled us to return to these stories over and over again. In fact, we internalized them to the point where we longed for a day when we might spot a UFO on a clear night, or catch a glimpse of Bigfoot through the brush while camping. Sometimes we’d even conjure up our own evidence, like the time when we dug a hole in the yard and found a piece of plastic sheeting that we were absolutely certain must have come from a spaceship crash. What added even more allure to these tales was the notion that big government, the military, a secret society, or some other nebulous forces were engaged in conspiracies to keep us from learning ‘the truth.’
Later, after we’d all gone our separate ways, our generation’s appetite for the supernatural was satiated with productions like Unsolved Mysteries. In grad school, we took turns hosting X-Files watch parties, soaking in every moment with friends who had remarkably similar childhood preoccupations, even though we grew up in entirely different parts of the United States.
The Truth is Out There. — Agent Mulder
There are many factors that probably contributed to our shared obsession, some of which had something to do with the profit margins of the entertainment industry. After all, these narratives were the perfect mix of true stories, tall tales around the campfire, mystery, investigative journalism, and other-worldly fantasy. They opened up the imagination in ways that were connected just enough to grounded reality. They also played with the rules of nature, and toyed with logic by alternately fore-fronting and obfuscating those rules.
As consumers of these stories, we were given permission to both believe and not believe (sometimes simultaneously); and, it didn’t matter much where we landed. In fact, you could argue that this slippage between faith and skepticism was at the heart of their appeal. What seemed to matter most in these stories was the thrill of believing—an emotionally charged whirlwind of exploring partially veiled phenomena paired with the freedom of never quite knowing whether we were dealing entirely with facts.
What seemed to matter most in these stories was the thrill of believing—an emotionally charged whirlwind of exploring partially veiled phenomena paired with the freedom of never quite knowing whether we were dealing entirely with facts.
I’ve been a student of narrative and its relationship to human behavior for a very long time. Stories with ‘slippages’ between daily life and shared imaginaries are actually far more common than many people assume.
My doctoral dissertation focused on radical environmentalists at the turn of the 21st century and the ways in which they adopted (and co-opted) anthropological narratives to construct their belief systems. Some of these beliefs were inspired by the work of Marshal Sahlins, but they also included primitivist fantasies that idealized an imagined purity and egalitarianism of cultures from the Pleistocene era.
This blend of fact, fiction, and trans-historical, decontextualized cross-cultural comparisons—paired with their cell-based, leaderless structure—created a Petri dish for the rapid circulation of narratives that served as the ideological underpinning of direct action (most often property destruction). The point here is not that the beliefs of these activists were accurate or inaccurate, but that this form of narrative generation, distribution, and co-modification is so compelling that substantiating their perspective was largely irrelevant to them. Like the supernatural stories from my childhood, the whole experience of being caught up in a blurring between the real and the imaginary has an allure that outstrips logic, and is an incredibly powerful motivator to actualize beliefs.
This is a dynamic Wolfgang Iser so astutely identifies as ‘fictionalizing’ in his work The Fictive and The Imaginary:
“Just as the fictionalizing act outstrips the determinacy of the real, so it provides the imaginary with the determinacy that it would not otherwise possess…We can now see two distinct processes, which are set in motion by the act of fictionalizing. Reproduced reality is made to point to a ‘reality’ beyond itself, while the imaginary is lured into form. In each case there is a crossing of boundaries: the determinacy of reality is exceeded at the same time that the diffuseness of the imaginary is controlled and called into form.”
If this all sounds a bit heady, ask yourself where religion would be without this form of fictionalization. Religion (or even spirituality in general) engages the imagination in ways that reference both historical accounts and imagined new worlds. It’s also an incredibly powerful motivator; to the point where it can influence everything from the clothing we wear, to the buildings we live in, to the food we eat. Unprovable religious beliefs have also been so closely held historically that they’ve been the cause of countless (and sometimes deadly) conflicts.
Some argue that the role of fictionalizing (be it spiritual, supernatural, or otherwise) is hard wired into humans as a species. They would say that we’re all compelled in some way to consume and share narratives that necessarily don’t prioritize adherence to facts and physics.
Why do people believe and do weird things? Because, in the end, feeling alive is more important than telling the truth. We have evolved as living creatures to express ourselves, to be creative, to tell stories. We are instruments for feeling, faith, energy, emotion, significance, belief, but not really truth. — Louis Theroux
If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably wondering where I’m going with all this. Or maybe you’ve seen the connections I’m drawing between our common human propensity to fictionalize (and act upon the fictions we create) and our presently polarized political climate.
In the US at least, both extremes of the the political spectrum seem to think the other is delusional. What’s more, both extremes seem to be investing a great deal of energy into disproving (or dismissing) the views of the other. From “conspiracy theories” to “fake news,” dismantling the ‘fictions’ of the Other has become a core part of our (shameful) political discourse. If you think the answer to all this conflict is as simple as proving the opposing side wrong, think again.
Attempts to ‘debunk’ beliefs rooted in unsubstantiated narratives are easy to find, regardless of political position. But in many cases, these efforts often do very little to change opinions (see also this, this, and this). In fact, I would argue that most debunking projects end up being tautological exercises that simply reinforce the ‘rightness’ of the debunker, whose audience is most often people who already agree with their position. But with a broader lens it’s clear that in most cases both the debunker, and the ideologue they hope to disprove, claim that “the evidence is all around us,” and that there is, in fact, no debate to be had.
Resistance to debunking is complicated further by an array of cognitive biases, including confirmation bias and familiarity bias, among others. In addition, many people’s identities are entangled with deeply engrained belief systems, which, when working together, skew much more toward emotion than empirical evaluation. As Jonathan Rauch puts it, “believing is belonging.” He argues, “Reason can overrule our biases, but usually not when our personal prestige or group identity is at stake.” Compounding this further, numerous studies have found that falsehoods travel far faster, further, broader, and deeper than factual information, triggering outrage—especially when they are disseminated within like-minded groups.
We’re playing the wrong game if we focus on debunking, since it has, and always will, largely fall on deaf ears.
What I’d like to ask is this: What options do we have when, regardless of empirical evidence, these types of beliefs are often unlikely to shift in meaningful ways? And, more importantly, where could we be spending our energy most effectively in an effort to de-escalate conflict and de-polarize our discourse?
It may be helpful to return to the story I shared above and our childhood fascination with the supernatural. If our parents and other adult guides had spent the considerable energy it would have taken to try to convince us that our loosely-constructed ‘beliefs’ were false, would it have kept us from looking up into the night sky and hoping to see a UFO? No. And, if they’d forbidden us to watch those shows about UFO’s, or read the magazines about Bigfoot, would that have kept us from seeking out this material on our own? Certainly not. The fictive draw was simply too compelling.
Clearly there’s a difference between our currently polarized political landscape and childhood interest in supernatural fantasies, but what should we do when compelling fictions slip into the realm of politics or policy? How should we, as ‘parents’ in a room of shouting ‘children,’ respond?
- Be wary of utopian tendencies
When narrative constructions displace opportunities to consider empirical evidence within discourse (either by flooding a platform with their messaging, shouting down others, or ‘canceling’ them, etc.), the range of irrational possibilities broadens, inviting those who wish to drive narratives toward their imagined possible futures (on either side) to more easily influence others. This opens the door for utopian ideologies to slide in undetected, as they inherently blend reality and fiction, leaning more heavily on swaying people’s emotions than their minds.
You could make a case that the United States is fertile ground for this phenomenon, given that utopian sentiment is deeply rooted in our country’s history and shared cultural imagination. From fleeing the old world and inventing a radically new form of governance, to becoming the global destination to reinvent yourself, start fresh, or build an empire, the U.S. is a particularly compelling magnet for utopian thinking (good, bad, and otherwise).
Having spent many years understanding and interpreting utopian movements, I’ve witnessed first hand how easy it can be for people to get swept up in the appeal of their narratives. But their fictionalizing ‘magic’ has tendencies to leak beyond spirit-filled inspiration to influence the realms of governance and policy. This is dangerous. The good news is that this slipperiness can be easy to spot. Most utopian movements that begin to morph from inspiring narrative into bully pulpit aren’t very successful at masking the fact that their decrees tend to become very ‘blurry’ once people begin to ask specific questions about the power dynamics they inevitably impose. They defend their positions by pointing back to their own (often loosely constructed) positions, by citing slogans or enlisting fictionalizations to abstract the issue and reinforce emotional connections to their ideology. Anyone astute enough to track an argument can spot this, from whatever end of the political spectrum it arises.
- Situate your emotions (and your response)
I certainly don’t want to imply that all fictionalizing acts are harmful. Narrative building (and listening) is core part of who we are, and how we learn, as humans. I would say, however, that due to the challenges described above, it’s increasingly up to each of us to determine whether the narratives we’re experiencing are merely a form of entertainment (where we intentionally want our emotions to be engaged), or whether they’re overstepping their influence in critical ways.
When you’re faced with acts of fictionalization being peddled as mandates or facts (be they utopian or otherwise), ask yourself if your emotions are being triggered, or if the emotions of others are; and whether or not this appears to be the primary objective of the messenger. Truth-seeking, and fair and balanced arguments, are inherently deliberate, evaluative, and comparative. They don’t take short-cuts through the field of emotions.
I’ve found that a good response to irrational (and irrationally imposed) views is to slow down the pace of messaging and communication, gently disrupt the flow of the narrative, and, if possible, introduce interactions that open the process to include multiple checkpoints and diverse viewpoints. This deflects emotional and instinctual reactions by introducing processes that favor considered reason. If none of these are possible, speak up without reinforcing the position of an irrational ideologue, and move on. Engaging emotionally with them will go nowhere.
- Prioritize humility, generosity, and our common human values
Begin with the premise that we aren’t all going to agree all the time, and that’s OK. Then, find a way to highlight the fact that we all have some core common needs, traits, and values as humans who are SO briefly sharing our time on this planet. We may find different paths to get there, but we all value love, security, accomplishment, freedom, honesty, creativity, pleasure, etc. in one form or another. Whenever possible, return to these universals, and make them the focus. This should help keep destructive and vengeful tendencies at bay long enough to set a baseline for constructive interactions, even if it means identifying ‘no-go’ zones.
Some final thoughts
I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers here, let alone a solution to our polarized climate. However, reflections on the role of narrative, the irresistible draw of the fictive and the imaginary, and strategies for understanding the seductive pull of both, seemed like a gap within the current discourse on this topic. There are some great writers linked above in this entry. I hope you’ll take the time to dig in and reflect on their contributions as well.