Untangling the Lies that Bind

6 Toxic Elements in Contemporary Storytelling

A many-branching poison spreads through the land, touching many news outlets, schools, houses of worship, and families. A new presidential administration represents hope to much of America in the form of concrete, inclusive policies. Because of this, some might be tempted to forget the lessons of the recent past, along with the toxins that lingers, still spurring people to fear, to hate, to trust the untrustworthy, and to doubt the trustworthy.

In a recent interview, documentarian Ken Burns proclaimed that America has currently three viruses: “Covid-19, … white supremacy,… and an age-old human virus of misinformation, of paranoia, of conspiracies.” To these, I add a fourth: bad storytelling. Much of our ongoing national unravelling finds stems from it, with some particularly deep, thorny cultural roots.

As a scholar of religious and cultural history, I undertake significant research analyzing the power of stories in religions and of religious elements (often non-obvious ones) in popular, even ostensibly secular, stories, including in film and television. This essay summarizes the principle kinds of fraught narrative I perceive around me.

On January 6, opponents to the official results of the U.S. presidential election attempted to violently overturn its outcome, as aptly summarized by historian Heather Cox Richardson. Call it what you will (“protest of patriots”? “riot”? “insurrection”? “coup attempt”? “act of terrorism”?), the event occurred in large measure because participants believed themselves to be part of a story. A story of good versus evil. A story demanding action. They weren’t all following the same story. QAnon, Evangelical Trumpism, and neo-Nazism don’t lend themselves to coherent mixing, although the symbols of all three movements featured prominently at the event. But together they reached some consensus about what needed to happen next. Similarly, in the Third Reich, beneath its symbols and slogans, Nazism didn’t have a cohesive ideology apart from a vague white supremacy, or else its Protestant, Catholic, “Aryan Christian,” neo-pagan, pagan-Christian syncretist, atheist, and religiously ambivalent proponents might not have collaborated so efficiently.

Rooted in his upbringing in Mussolini’s Italy, scholar of signs and symbols Umberto Eco has summed up fascism as not a cohesive ideology but a set of contradictory attitudes, assumptions, and aesthetics oriented toward power. Much of that involves telling, retelling, and acting out certain genres of story.

Rather than attempt to make sense of the divergent narratives driving the various kinds of “insurrectionists” (or your preferred label), I hope to illuminate some particularly problematic elements—plot tropes, story themes, and narrative genres—that pervade not only current American political discourse, both Right and Left (albeit not equally), but also television and film. The path toward a more equitable society, a more united citizenry, and more satisfied viewers lies beyond them. But on all sides they are intertwined with what sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls “deep story,” the foundational narratives that people hold onto because these embody their most deeply held beliefs. Untangling these insidious strands and weaving together something unifying, healing, and just will be the work of generations.

1. Easy Enemies

Among the most obvious and most toxic ploy is an attempt to cast scapegoats as the source of true citizens’ ills. “Illegals… are all rapists and murderers.” “They’re here to steal our jobs.” “The Democrats will destroy our country.” “Republicans are evil.” “Southerners are Stupid.” “Florida Man….” By stoking the fear and hatred around common enemies, lumped together into simplistic groups and demonized, certain leaders have been able to gain a substantial following. In various contexts, the role of the hated Other has often been played by religious groups, whether Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, or otherwise, no matter how assimilated. More often than not, the animosity seems to have less to do with religion as religion and more to do with the political expediency of hatred. The enemy need not actually exist in order to serve its purpose.

Although I do not suggest that “both sides” are equally culpable of such rhetoric, it does strike me how the rhetorical battle lines make it hard to switch sides. Rather than attempt to understand them with nuance (including recognizing the progressives among them), many costal progressives seem prone to lump all small-town Midwesterners together, for example. Even during the insurrection, false assumptions proliferated about the marital- and socio-economic status the insurrectionists. For some, that may have been emotionally satisfying at a visceral level, but that doesn’t help explain the involvement of a stay-at-home father of five whose wife is a physician or the leader of Hawaii’s Proud Boys, whose wife is Black, nor does it help chart a path forward.

2. Heroes Like Us

The flip side of a two-dimensional antagonist is an equally simplistic protagonist. From that vantage point, the world is divided into the “good guys” (us!) and the “bad guys” (them). In fact, if that is one’s starting assumption, grasping at ready-made enemies becomes second nature. It also fits into the binary assumed by the “two sides” default of American political culture. The logic can become utterly self-reinforcing. “If I am one of the good guys and they are opposed to me, then I know which side they are on!”

If you assume that you personally, your racial group, or your nation is automatically, always counted among “the good guys,” then you’re leaving accountability off the table, in addition to setting up other groups as the assumed “bad guys.” Often, these are racially coded (e.g., “thugs”). Given that we humans generally don’t do well, morally speaking, power without accountability is a recipe for moral failure.

The Godfather trilogy’s (1972, 1974, 1990) vivid depiction of this is part of what makes its appeal so enduring. So, too, in terms of character development the Star Wars franchise (1977-present) has been at its best when it explores the permeable boundary between the Dark Side and Light Side of the Force. Much of the magic of Game of Thrones owed to the conflict of one noble house against another evolving into something far more complicated.

Naiveté, hubris, and insecurity feed delusions of self-as-straightforward-hero. The antidotes, then, seem to be self-doubt, humility, and moral caution, especially in the stories we tell ourselves. “Every villain is the hero of their own story,” runs a screenwriting dictum, inspired most likely by an early 20th-century poem about Nero. The corrupting potential of power is such that I should assume that even I—and whatever groups I identify with—could become subject to just as much moral peril as any other, if given adequate incentive, opportunity, and time. The closest things we have to “good guys” might not be wholly good nor remain that good. If that’s not worth losing sleep over, I don’t know what is.

3. Moral Simplicity

Sometimes there is utmost moral clarity. For example, genocide is always wrong. But it is unreasonable to expect every moral decision to have a simple, straightforward, knowable, and known right answer. The easiest way to avoid this pitfall may, perhaps be recognizing one’s own flaws (vs. #2) and others’ merits (vs. #1).

If someone wants to guide you into an obviously necessary perpetual war (#2, as heroes!) against self-evidently dastardly enemies (#1), you are already be in trouble. Certainly, avoiding this seems to be part of Marvel’s enduring appeal against D.C. Comics. Consider the conflicted restraint of T’Challa in conflict with the not-entirely-unjustified wrath of Killmonger in Black Panther (2018).

By contrast, early in Wonder Woman (2017), when Diana of the Amazons asked “Who are you?” Chris Pine’s character replied with a smirk and shrug, “We’re the good guys.” (Confession: I didn’t bother watching the remaining 130 minutes.) At least Batman has the decency to be perpetually at-odds with himself.

Say what you will about the Hunger Games book and film trilogy (2008-2015), Collins, its creator, does not lapse into simplistic thinking about the resistance and ensuing republic, even though it would have lent itself to an easier (read: stereotypical Hollywood) ending.

4. “Redemptive Violence”

Much of mainstream American culture prioritizes outward action. As in “you are what you do,” in the sense that your career defines you. But also as in: when your only perceived tool is a gun, every problem looks like a target.

When combined with moral simplicity (#3), assurance of one’s own righteousness (#2), and the presumption of opponents’ iniquity (#1), the assumption that violence must be the solution to conflict yields powerful results: fictional and dramatized “true” stories that can feel satisfying for many viewers. Paired with the visual, action-oriented nature of on-screen storytelling, tropes of “redemptive violence” find a ready audience.

Some would argue that war movies end up inevitably being pro-war. Prison camp movies like To End All Wars (2001) and Rising Sun (1983) fare better on that count. So do long-form treatments like Band of Brothers (2001) and The Pacific (2010), able to convey moral nuance by taking seriously the flaws and toll on all sides, with all their variations, without minimizing the potentially legitimate causes for involvement in conflict.

Alas, death imitates art. The same combination (#1-4) in real life most plausibly combines with other factor (e.g., officers’ implicit bias, disproportionate policing of neighborhoods of color, etc.) to result in unethical, excessive, and lethal use of physical force among many law enforcement agencies in the U.S.

“We, the good guys, must dominate and/or eliminate them, the obvious enemy, through force.” What rationales does mainstream American culture provide for the U.S. undertaking military action as a nation or for individuals to enlist in the armed forces, apart from some iteration of that? Small wonder that former military personnel were well represented at the insurrection. We collectively don’t seem to have a popular, more compelling genre of story to share in justification of armed conflict.

There may be times when force must be met with force. But to insist that this is the only path forward to every conflict, personal or national, domestic or international, is to stray far from both peace and justice. It becomes too easy to justify preemptive aggression as the best form of self-defense.

5. “Toxic Individualism”

Self-righteous violence (#1-4 combo) already poses problems when perpetrated by national, state, and local governments, institutions, and dominant communities. But many individuals, too, feel they have the right to play judge, jury, and executioner as the perceived need arises.

This is true not only in some interpretations of the 2nd amendment but also in many people’s flouting of basic Covid-19 protocols (e.g., mask wearing, social distancing).

What military strategist Tom Nichols has labelled “the death of expertise” has taken an especially lethal form in some communities’ hostility to public health officials. Chris Merrett, director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, has diagnosed the cause as “toxic individualism.”

Even in its more benign forms, individualism obscures the social structures and systems (healthcare, education, law enforcement, legal, economic, religious, etc.) in which participants can simultaneously suffer under and be complicit in various injustices. Educational cartoon Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum (2019-present) can showcase Maya Angelou as a poet of kind words without referencing any of the racism, sexism, and classism that provided the context for her powerful assertions of self. Cop comedy Brooklyn 99 (2013-present) offers “a scathing critique of destructive policing” in the words of one commentator, but the takes several seasons to hits its stride in that regard and in ways that still whitewash the structural inequities that incentivize oppressive policing—because such issues are bigger than the story arc of one or even a handful of individual characters can capture.  

Stories that account for such fraught interrelationships are hard stories to tell. Fortunately, multi-episode and multi-film story arcs have become the norm in screen fiction. Documentaries and docuseries, too, can accomplish much. Most notably, Kimberlé Crenshaw’s Under the Blacklight webinar series analyzes racial, socio-economic, gendered, and other factors intersecting in divergent health outcomes in the pandemic. The Netflix documentary 13th (2016) offers a vivid exposé of the racial inequities built into the U.S. correctional system. Without touching on such weighty social issues, Free Solo (2018) nonetheless implicitly questions individualism, even as it celebrates it. The film chronicles Alex Honnold’s quest to be the first to scale a ½ mile tall piece of granite without ropes, heedless that his friends and loved ones may watch him die if his fingers slip at any point during his ascent.

On the fiction side, the potential is there, but seems to remain largely untapped, at least in the mainstream. Watching the women of Mad Men (2007-2015) or an aspiring police chief on season one of Fargo (2014-present) collide with the Glass Ceiling can be especially instructive for those of us who lack that experience. But it seems that show-runners must be utterly deliberate in their efforts to highlight such impediments—and even then, there are no guarantees that viewers will perceive such dynamics.

6. “Happily Ever After”

When I was a child, my parents lulled me to sleep with tales of magic, peril, and good overcoming evil forevermore. I am no longer a child. Yet that desire remains for permanent resolution of all my woes in this life. I should know better. We should all know better. And yet many advertising, political, and military campaigns have been made under that utopian premise, whether for all of us or just for the select few (“Discerning consumers like you!”).

Such appeals have countless variations. Some propose resurrecting a mythical, bygone golden age. Others proclaim “mission accomplished!” when the work is far from over. One particularly lazy version of the “white savior complex” expects the chosen simply to show up and receive accolades, especially from the racial (viz. indigenous) other.

On some level, that dynamic is at play in Dune (e.g., 1984, 2000, and 2021 films, as well as the books) and in Danaerys’s quest to liberate the darker peoples of both Westeros and Essos in Game of Thrones (2011-2019, like the books before it). Even the Pevensie children in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (e.g., 2005, or any of the earlier films or books) share this affliction. In terms of overthrowing the White Witch, their primary virtue is showing up as European humans in Narnia, fulfilling divine order. Against this expectation, when certain groups carrying a sense of racial entitlement receive less than victory just for showing up, false narratives of victimhood and even of martyrdom proliferate.

Any version of “happily ever after” risks entrenching denial of systemic flaws and the ongoing work necessary to address them. After all, those who engage in incremental work of making society more equitable understand that perfection is not an option, even in the short-run. Promises of enduring bliss are, by definition, false this side of the hereafter. Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo note in Is Everyone Really Equal? (2012), activist movements often lose momentum after claiming electoral or legislative victories, as a critical mass of activists and observers alike are lulled into a false sense of complacency. This frequent impediment to justice is made all the more intractable because, as anti-racism educator Tim Wise points out, “White denial [of racism] is an American tradition.” As soon as the fireworks launch and freedom rings, many voters pat themselves on the back and look away.

If the last years have taught those of us in the U.S. anything, it is that civic responsibility demands constant vigilance, along with discernment and acceptance of half-measures. The dictum “The perfect is the enemy of the good” was passed on to me by a faculty mentor, as it had been passed on to her. The saying saw me through grad school. Especially when it comes to perfect endings—or lack thereof in this life—one must take particular care.

Many would gladly trade the ambiguity of the end of Inception (2010) for the fairytale finale to The Dark Knight Rises (2012); or at least that provides some indication of what Christopher Nolan and his studio backers are willing to do for wider commercial appeal: the heroes alive, happy, prosperous, together, at peace forever, and somehow without need of psycho-therapy. That is the kind of ending, whether explicitly fictional or purporting to be plausible, that cultural power brokers have been selling and that many of us have been buying for our entire lives. We must be wary of succumbing out of sheer habit when charlatans attempt to sell it to us in real life.

To Be Continued… Or Not To Be Continued?

A half-century ago, James Baldwin noted the almost “narcotic” quality that cinema has in dominant U.S. culture. At around the same time, an anonymous Latin American author is rumored to have quipped that “the U.S. doesn’t have history, it has movies” (paraphrase). Because of these dynamics, it is almost inevitable that the stories people consume, especially in aggregate, define the roles they choose to play in society. To some extent, then, being a responsible citizen may involve producing, consuming, and redistributing the right kinds of stories. The fate of us all may hinge upon that.

Even as fearful and hateful rhetoric has proliferated, there remains a relative vacuum for true stories of hope. Sound policy and effective activism alone are not sustainable, even in dynamic dialogue between those in and out of power. People need to be a part of stories that they can share with others, including those different from themselves. Stories of solidarity, empowerment, and hope, tempered with realism about moral peril for any in power, including oneself. These must avoid a simplistic “we” that would efface the authentic differences between us or minimize the gravity of inequities, but that draw our attention to just what each of us can do and why we should. Perhaps we have moved past fact versus fiction in the court of public opinion. If so, dear storytellers, your task has never mattered more. May the truest stories win.