The threat of the other story

Ferdinand von Schirach

It is extremely difficult — well-nigh impossible — to hate, condemn, or dismiss other people after hearing — really, really hearing — their stories.

This might be one way of summarizing Verbrechen (Crime), a fantastic book I recently finished reading. (It took me only a couple of hours to read, that’s how good it is.)

The author is Ferdinand von Schirach, a criminal-defense lawyer in Berlin who has seen every sort of perversion and gore and weirdness there is. (I read the German version; the English translation is here.)

I won’t go into the stories he tells in his book. They’re short, full of suspense and wonder, and you might want to read the book and be surprised. Suffice it to say that I love this man’s voice. It is masculine and sparse, empathetic, slyly humorous at the right moments, forgiving but not indulgent.

But back to my opening sentence: This post is really about storytelling per se.

Well over a year ago, we discussed “the danger of the single story” — that danger being that incomplete storytelling about a person (ie, stereotyping) robs that person of his dignity.

But it occurred to me that there is also “the danger of the other story“.

That other story is the one that

  • challenges our worldview,
  • shakes our certainty about something,
  • makes us feel uncomfortable.

If we’re suing somebody, it’s that other person’s story. If we’re a certain kind of Turk, it’s the Armenian story. If we’re a rape victim, it’s the story of the one we (wrongly) accused of the rape to feel better. If we are…. (The list of examples goes on forever.)

What’s so “dangerous” about these stories? They destablize us. Once we’ve heard the other story, we have to revisit something, something that we do not want to revisit. Perhaps we have to withdraw a judgment. Perhaps we have to share empathy with somebody, when we really wanted it all to ourselves.

Consider my recent story about an extended family of illegal immigrants from Mexico. Somewhere in the middle of that longish piece, there were a few lines about a trailer that one of the families lived in,

… a trailer in Watsonville, just outside Steinbeck’s home town of Salinas. The trailer is dilapidated, but Ms Vega tends to it lovingly. By the door hangs a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint. There is even a small television set. But the trailer has no air conditioning or heating. On this day, after a downpour, it smells musty….

Then one of the comments caught my eye. The commenter was upset by this detail of the trailer. Why? Because it was the other story. You see, he (or she) does want to talk about trailers. But it has to be his trailer story:

When poor native born Americans are forced to live in trailers, they are dismissed/ignored as trailer park trash. When poor illegals cross into the country to have babies and live in trailers, we write up their sob stories and talk about human suffering. If the author bothers to look, he’d see the tens of millions of wretched poor we already have in the US, living in urban ghettos, trailer parks, rural areas, reservations, their cars, even homeless. Where are their sob stories?

He didn’t actually mean “where are their sob stories?”. For those are everywhere, and the author (ie, me) has “bothered to look.” No, this commenter was really saying: “Why is the other story here instead?” Seeing this story makes it harder to maintain the identity he built on his story. He wanted the circle of empathy, the focus of storytelling, drawn around a tighter group. And so the other story is a threat. He would much prefer it not be told.

Risqué extension to politics and society

We can expand this discussion to reach for a more general insight. The difference between the two dangers — ie, the danger of the single story and the danger of the other story — has something to do with whom each threatens.

  • The single story, by stereotyping, threatens individual dignity. (Even if you stereotype a group, it is its individual members who suffer.)
  • The other story threatens group cohesion.

Now recall my own, personal and amateurish diagram of the political spectrum (which is no more than a doodle to comfort me in my confusion):

Concern for the individual is, on balance, a liberal instinct (if you use the correct definition of liberal).

Conservatives (in the classical, Burkian sense) are more concerned about group cohesion.

Now, based on my experience, there is a natural spectrum among people:

  • Some tend t0 emphasize the danger in the other story, and they tend to be conservative.
  • Others emphasize the danger in the single story, and they tend to be liberal.

The single story is more likely to be what Nietzsche would have called Apollonian: sanitized, reassuring, heroic, morally clear. It might involve flag-waving, or a triumph of the justice system, or our own fight against some outrageous wrong.

The other story is more likely to be messy, dark, weird, morally complicated. It might involve exceptions, outsiders, a failure of the justice system, or our own shortcomings.

(Obviously, nobody is exclusively in one camp or the other. But it is quite rare that a storyteller might give equal emphasis to the single and the other story, as Clint Eastwood did with his double take, one and two, of the battle of Iwo Jima.)

One interesting upshot to contemplate: This might explain why conservatives tend to win propaganda wars against liberals. (In America, for instance, Fox trounces whatever rivals pose as its left-wing analogue.) The reason is that the conservatives pick one single story and rally around it, telling and retelling it until the audience is numb. The liberals try, but fail, to agree on a single story to tell. They cannot help themselves and tell many, many other stories. The conservatives thus rally their troops around a single story; the liberals can’t even get anybody to stand in an orderly line for the battle.

This brings us back to my older thread about Socrates, and in particular why the Athenians felt they had to kill him. In this post, I reflected on how Socrates might have behaved in the famous Asch experiments (about conformism): he would have told the truth every time, thus compromising the coherence of the group. (Here is my somewhat dumbed-down piece in The Economist about this tension.)

In a nutshell: Conservative Athens could tolerate Socrates, who really personified the other story, as long as it was a stable polis. But once the polis came under threat (after losing the war against Sparta and the putsches by Spartan sympathizers), the emphasis shifted to group cohesion and other stories were deemed too dangerous.

If you want to expand your perspective even further, you might contemplate all of Western intellectual history as an awkward tension between the single and the other story: as you recall from this anatomical analogy, one side of the “body” is devoted to each.

Whatever you think about this, don’t jump to the conclusion that I worship one and condemn the other. The truth is that there is a certain masochism in telling other stories.

Which reminds me of something that Ferdinand von Schirach says in the prologue to his great book (and I translate):

I had an uncle who was a judge… [His stories] always began with him saying that “most things are complicated, and guilt is quite a thing.”

One day, after a long life, that uncle went to the woods and blasted his head off with a shotgun.

24 thoughts on “The threat of the other story

    • “In the process of becoming…” That’s the generous way of putting it, Solid Gold. The less merciful way to say it is that the post meanders. I did indulge myself, but hey, I figured, if not on a personal blog, then where?

  1. A wonderful thought about the ‘other story’ – BUT – stories (even if true) are about evoking emotions, and when emotional, human beings stop being rational. And this makes them blind to believe the ‘truth’ as it is projected. And how do we balance, and bring ourselves to see the other side of the story. Invariably, we do not because by then we have already judged – often labeling the guilty.
    Indeed this post is thought provoking, but how do we stay balanced without judging?

    • Well, Sanjiv, as I was thinking about this, I tried to sort the problem into two halves:

      On one side is the choice of what story to tell or (for the audience) what story to read/hear.

      On the other side is the choice of how to tell a story that has been chosen. This includes subtle voice and tone (documentary vs epic etc), but even honest truth versus outright lies.

      The post above is only about the first, ie the choice of story.

      Regarding the balance we need before judging: Ultimately, I think it can only come out of many, many stories simultaneously told and heard. But that is very messy.

  2. Very interesting. I totally agree with the concept of the other story being potentially transgressive, or at least disturbing, but I want to give the idea more thought–there seems to be a risk of something faintly Procrustean about parsing stories into single or other, so the rules may have to be flexible. Thanks for the interesting ideas.

  3. One other thing. I think that Ferdinand von Shirach is the grandson of Baldur von Shirach who was one of the leading Nazis tried at the first Nuremburg Trial. The grandfather was head of the Hitler Youth and later was implicated in crimes against humanity in Vienna. I thought that was going to be part of your “other” story and might well be!

    • You’re right. Indeed, in writing the post, I was starting to spin another long theory about this fact, and how it might or might not have shaped the worldview of the grandson and author, but then it got so complicated and speculative that I just cut it all out.

      (Also I thought that it might not be fair to the grandson, ie Ferdinand. That said, his family name did fill me with an involuntary horror. But now, having read the book, I associate the name more with the grandson than with the granddad. You might say, that the NAME itself went from SINGLE to OTHER story….)

  4. While reading, one man and his book kept coming back to my mind: Albert Speer and Inside the Third Reich. Maybe because of von Schirach. The name reminded me of someone, Thomas has pinpointed him nicely. So many other stories here.
    Goering had something when, at Neuremberg, he said to his judges:”If we had won, you would be in our place”.

    • The name had a similar effect on me, Paul. I hope Ferdinand writes about how that must feel one day.

      Anyway, as I replied to Thomas above, I WAS DRAFTING a long and complicated interpretation about how the Nazi element in this defense attorney’s family history, and by analogy the Nazi part of Germany’s past, must have indelibly shaped the post-modern worldview of the man and the country. And then it got too complicated. Maybe I’ll have another go at it some time…

  5. Your point (in the comments) is well taken about giving the grandson some space to get away from the atrocities of his grandfather.

    I’ve been thinking about the term “worldview” and wondering (as it applies to my Galileo studies) to what degree the time and place in which we are born influences who we are.

    Or is that part of the “other story”?

    • That’s one of the most interesting topics to ponder, Cheri.

      We today adore Galileo because he had “our” worldview before its time. So we’re on “his side”. Oh, those yucky churchmen he had to deal with.

      Simultaneously, we are extremely uncomfortable to find out that people we admire, such as Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, owned slaves. How could they! But they were people of their time.

      We look for the universal and unchanging in human nature, and we do find it. But then we also stumble upon the other bits, and we are shocked.

      Yes, I do think it’s part of the “OTHER” story, and here is why: Every time we read about Jefferson’s slaves, we get secretly nervous, because we know that there must be SOMETHING that future generations will find equally disturbing about us and our worldview, of which we tend to be so proud.

  6. There is my story, there is your story, and then there’s the truth.

    What you talk about (in terms of criminal acts) is not only the opposing views of events but also what are called “mitigating factors.”

    I do not envy judges nor do I envy prosecutors and defense lawyers. Only on TV shows do either of these work with the truth, they simply present those two versions and let the jury fight over it all.

    I was fascinated by the O.J. Simpson trial and watched it almost every day. Testimony, seemingly concrete, was easily interpreted in two or three different ways.

    • Bits of truth in each and every story. How to collect those bits and assemble the whole (truth) is the real question. It may not be possible.

      Example: I approach a parking place. The van on the left has a passenger about to get out so the door opens momentarily. I stop and wait for him to exit so I can pull in. He waits, pulling the door back to almost closed, so that I may pull in. I pay more attention to him than perhaps I should. Yet I move forward into the space. I am moving slowly, glancing toward the van on my left, when I realize I am about to hit the mini van parked in the space in front of me. I hit the brakes but I tap the back bumper of that mini van. No damage to that vehicle or to mine. But as I look at the bumpers, I realize she parked the mini van three feet into the space I was trying to occupy.

      Who is at fault? Who isn’t? Is there a truth in this? Does the truth matter?

  7. One interesting upshot to contemplate: This might explain why conservatives tend to win propaganda wars against liberals.

    I’ve been contemplating this for a long time on two continents, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it is— by definition—the respective opposition that is always “better organized at getting their message out” and in possession of the proverbial “bigger megaphone.”

    The upshot is that you have conservatives constantly complaining about the entrenched “liberal media,” (New York Times, Network News, and new online forums like MoveOn and The Huffington Post) and liberals perpetually whining about Fox News and talk radio.

    And it makes sense—after all, if someone is so utterly misguided that they would throw in with the right or the left respectively, it must be that they’ve been brainwashed by the enemy propaganda machine, for obviously they couldn’t have fallen in with the wrong crowd based on reason alone.

  8. Andreas,

    I started reading you last winter, during a fallow time at work. Within two months I’d read it all the way back to the beginning of the Hannibal Blog. It really is one of the most remarkable that I’ve ever read. Now, being ever busier at work, I get your posts by email, automatically diverted to a particular folder. Seeing a new email waiting in that folder really brightens up a Monday morning.

    Now, though, I’m especially pleased that after a series of brief, if illuminating, posts, you’ve returned to the remarkable length and insight that captivated me all last winter. It may not last, it may be now more than this one post, but I’m delighted. Thank you.


    • Tom, thank you! I don’t even know you, just as I don’t “know” anybody else here, but to have a stranger engage so intimately with my thoughts is one of the most amazing experiences I know.

      I do have some longer posts in my mental draft folder, but I’ve been preoccupied these past few weeks with work. (I’m writing a 12,000-word Special Report on California.) And suddenly there is constantly something to do for Riverhead in the book process. But there’ll be more frequent posts soon.

      Thanks so much for being here, Andreas

  9. jenny had a link to a story on “this american life’ that was very interesting if not a bit obvious – it deal with the ability of one movement to deliver a clear message and the reasons why “liberals try, but fail, to agree on a single story to tell” (as explained by a spokesperson for the democrats).

    perhaps she will be kind enough to give the link again.

  10. Andreas,

    I look forward to the special report, and perhaps a few longer posts when it’s out of the way?

    Of course, then there’s your book, which I’m anticipating all the more eagerly for a year spent reading this blog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s