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.