Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Stories, lies and listeners

The morning after an election is a good time to reflect on the difference between stories and lies. Some say, of course, that all storytellers are liars and others say that the only way to tell the truth is to tell a story. During an election, we hear a wide variety of divergent narratives. Whether they are seen as facts or lies or stories depends entirely on the people listening.

Since stories are seen as embodying both truth and lies, it may be useful to consider how what we know about stories helps us understand what has been said and what will be said next. Stories are an interactive form; they create a shared space between teller and listener (and, more subtly, between writer and reader, but that is a story in itself). If someone is telling a story, we expect it to be different in response to different listeners - as shared space, some of the story is created by what the listeners bring to the space. If you do not already understand this, simply try telling the same story to very different people (your boss and your five year old, for instance) and notice how the story is and is not the same.

This was said to be an election about telling the truth. If it were an election about the quality of stories we were told, it would be different. We would understand that stories are about relationships, and to maintain relationships as contexts and people change, stories also change. We would know that we have a responsibility as listeners because the way we listen changes the stories we are told.

Whatever happens next, the new government will be liars: they will be liars because they hold rigidly to their own program (thus not giving us a change from a very old pattern) or they will be liars because they listen and adapt (and therefore change their promises). This would be true no matter which party won the election, of course. All politicians tell stories and all storytellers are liars.

Not all liars are equally good storytellers. As we move into the future, it might be interesting to ask: how good are these storytellers and how is the quality of our listening changing their stories?

No comments: