As I grow older, the more and more I think humanity runs on stories. Our great advantage as a species is not just sentience, but the communication that sentience allows for. Alone, we aren’t at the top of the food chain, but let us talk to one another and get on board a mutual plan, and suddenly we’re a legitimate threat.


Because of this, communications technology has been responsible for a fundamental reshaping of our humanity. As it became more and more widespread, the speed at which humans receive new information has accelerated. We’ve gone from having one book in our households to having many, and magazines, and blogs, and television, and YouTube, and god knows what else the future will bring. Most people decry the way in which this has had a negative influence on our attention span. Sure. But it has a worse influence on our ability to tell interesting stories.


One of the things I hear from direct service people, cops and social workers alike, is that they’ve “heard it all before.” They perceive the stories of individuals as untrue because they’ve seen similarly structured lies before. In effect, people are being punished because their trials and tribulations aren’t novel.


“I’m tired of the same excuses,” is another common refrain from the powerful to their subordinates. But sometimes the excuses happen to be true. The incentive that phrase creates is one in which an inventive lie is going to be granted greater credence than the unvarnished truth. Isn’t that backwards?


Some stories have a concrete effect on the lives of the folk. Real humans are dying because we teach bad stories to people in position of power. These are stories of the “welfare queens” and the “poor people dining on lobster” varieties. The credulous take these stories, repeat them amongst themselves as though they were a mantra, and then let these illusions guide their policy preferences to the detriment of others. This is not the worst example, though. No matter how awful the slow starvation of the working poor may be, the most pernicious story we tell is the one about the “others.”


Police officers all around the country are being trained day in and day out to believe that they are constantly in danger of being murdered. Not only that, but they’re taught to think that they are exceptional; their hero lives are more important than the civilians they are supposed to safeguard, and their real responsibility is to make it home at the end of the day. What a terrible story for us to tell our watchmen. They see themselves as sheepdogs, but good shepherds don’t sacrifice their sheep to warm themselves against the fear.


One of the reasons I care so much about stories like Alesha, Who Smiles at Death is because these stories give us a framework upon which we can build our own unique personalities. When you don’t fit into a narrative, people challenge your basic legitimacy every step of the way. You end up having to tell your own story to all who take it upon themselves to determine whether or not you are who and what you say you are. For the privileged people, (who are usually some combination of white, cis, male, able, and attractive), there are a wealth of stories to choose from. When you lack that privilege, your options narrow. And for some people, there aren’t options at all.


That was why Mad Max: Fury Road was received so positively by intersectional feminists, and why the DC New 52 reboot of Oracle was such a slap in the face. There are few stories in which people with disabilities are allowed to be badass independent of the restrictions of their bodies; even the loss or gain of one of these properties has reverberations. The dream is that these ripples will only be positive going forward. The reality is worse.


I mention Alesha because for trans people, we have a similar dearth of stories, and what stories we do have told about us tend to be about stereotypes, not people. That’s why I’ve been so annoyed with the recent surge in coverage of Caitlyn Jenner. She’s clearly a woman who either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the broader umbrella of trans narratives.


Why, you might ask? It’s the little things. Much has been written about the way trans stories tend to rely on the same sorts of minimizing tropes. A common one is to start any documentary about trans women with a scene of said woman putting on gender-normative makeup. This is a trap, and it’s a known negative narrative. It starts the story with the implication that makeup is inherent to their gender, which is an attack against the legitimacy of one’s gender identity as well as being sexist to boot.


This shouldn’t be controversial, but to some degree it still is: wearing makeup isn’t an inherent characteristic of women, no matter how much our stories try to sell this to us. Pay attention to the women next time you watch a movie or television show. Are they all wearing makeup? If they’re not, is this something that other people comment on? Is it a plot point? Is the character being portrayed as post-sexual? Even how we tell our stories communicates volumes! Even the most minute details can be weaponized against the common folk.


Those common tropes that just slide into our stories aren’t immaculate conceptions (another old story that was repackaged as something unique and new). The stories that we hear as a society are all being filtered through for-profit institutions who see individuals as the resource, not the consumer. The beauty myth makes (mostly) women strive after Sisyphysian standards, the violent stories make (mostly) men frustrated with the absence of true conflict in their lives. Both of these narratives, the primary ones in the lives of your average American, make people feel insecure. It opens people up to hatred, and fear, and all sorts of other mental skulduggery.


Back in the day you had to look another person in the eye when you were conditioning them, messing with their heads. Now there are channels that spend day in and day out trying to reinforce all the worst aspects of humanity, all so that we never stand tall again.


“Greed is good.” “American exceptionalism.” “It’s better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.” “Stranger danger.” “What you don’t know can kill you.” “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” “Rags to riches.” “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” “Love conquers all.” “Winners never quit and quitters never win.” These are the types of hoary old chestnuts we warm ourselves with when faced with the meaninglessness of chance. Not a single one of these things is universally true, or accessible. Some are more flagrantly false than others (looking at you, Gordon Gecko), but at the end of the day not a single one of these paths will pan out for all who walk down them. Yet we blithely accept this rhetorical programing, because they’re supported by stories that we’ve all been trained to know.


Even if we only know the stories about the stories. The meta-stories. How many people remember that Wall Street was about the moral degradation of that selfish philosophy, and not a defense of it? The popular reading is the inverse. That movie influenced sociopaths to try their luck on Wall Street, and as a result we’ve now legalized and insured high-stakes gambling when done by dudes in suits with the backing of some faceless corporate entity.


This is why the stories we tell are important. They’re a balm and a shield, a poison and a sword. They shape our reality. When someone dismisses a legitimately raised concern as being trivial, remember this: stories are how we communicate, and communication is how we influence people. The war against false narrative has fronts on every level of our culture, high and low, and that’s too much for any one person to fight. We can only win this together, but to do so we need to get better at listening to the voices of our allies… particularly if they’ve traditionally lacked a megaphone.
Jess Stirba is not an imposter.

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