Adam Gopnik vs. Jonathan Gotschall on Stories

As I've written before, I'm a skeptical of claims, like Jonathan Gottschall's, about the power of stories to make us better people. Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker is skeptical too. Gopnik argues that


Gotschall's more central claim—that stories increase our empathy, and “make societies work better by encouraging us to behave ethically”—seems too absurd even to argue with. Surely if there were any truth in the notion that reading fiction greatly increased our capacity for empathy then college English departments, which have by far the densest concentration of fiction readers in human history, would be legendary for their absence of back-stabbing, competitive ill-will, factional rage, and egocentric self-promoters; they’d be the one place where disputes are most often quickly and amiably resolved by mutual empathetic engagement. It is rare to see a thesis actually falsified as it is being articulated.

This seems glib, doesn't it? It also seems that it might be a good point. 

If stories prime our sympathetic capacities, why aren't literature professors saints? Moral philosophers aren't especially moral, but that's probably because thinking with precision about morality has no obvious connection to moral motivation. I can have excellent ideas about good free-throw-shooting form without being able to accurately shoot free throws myself. But the idea about stories and morality is that stories exercise our moral muscles in a way that makes us readier to sympathetically inhabit the perspective of others. As I mentioned in my previous post, I don't think this idea takes the situationist evidence seriously enough. The presence or absence of hunger, a sense of hurry, loud noises, or disgusting smells is more likely to affect our behavior than having read a lot of stories. 

Anyway, advanced "mind-reading" skills are just as likely to be used to see further down the game tree, to out-strategize our competitors for stuff or status or consorts or kingdoms. No, scratch that. More likely. Any extra mind-reading capacities we manage to develop are way more likely to be harnessed to our non-moral motives, simply because most motivation is non-moral, and we use the tools we have at hand.

In any case, behaving morally in the moment has little to do with sympathy and a lot to do with one's immoral options simply not coming to mind. The norms we internalize edit our options and rank them. Stories are a powerful medium for moral propaganda, and surely have a great deal to with the way in which humans pass along moral culture. But stories can teach us to despise and destroy just as well as they can teach us to love and create. I'd say literature professors are no better than we vulgar plebes because we shouldn't expect stories, as such, to make us better people. 

Of course, Gottschall won't like that explanation. Perhaps he'll answer that literature professors don't in fact spend more time consuming stories and exercising their moral capacities than do ordinary folk. We're all reading and watching and hearing stories all the time. That we have lit professors at all just goes to show we're a story-obsessed culture.

But this line of defense plays into another of Gopnik's complaints:

The interesting questions about stories, which have, as they say, excited the interests of readers for millennia, are not about what makes a taste for them “universal,” but what makes the good ones so different from the dull ones, and whether the good ones really make us better people, or just make us people who happen to have heard a good story. This is a case, as with women’s fashion, where the subtle, “surface” differences are actually the whole of the subject. Questions about those small differences seem not to have occurred to Gottschall. There is not a single reference in Gottschall’s book to such students of the mechanics of storytelling as William Empson, Samuel Johnson, Lionel Trilling, Virginia Woolf, Edmund Wilson, or Randall Jarrell, all of whom brooded long and hard upon stories and their subjects. 

On Facebook, Gottschall says he tried to reply to Gopnik in the comments at The New Yorker, but it wasn't working, so he posted his reply on Facebook in the mean time:

You sum up my book as a story “that tells us only that we like all kinds of stories.” Unkind. Unjust. And you dislike my emphasis on universal patterns in storytelling. You think universals are boring, and that—in fiction or women’s fashion—“’surface’ differences are actually the whole of the subject.” This reminds me of William Blake’s, "To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit—General Knowledges are those Knowledges that Idiots possess." But Blake was himself being an idiot. Not all merits lie in particulars. Trees are really interesting. But so are forests. The question of why one story outstrips another is interesting. But so is the question of how we became storytelling animals in the first place."

I agree with Gottschall that the question of how we became storytelling animals is interesting. But if the answer turns out to be something in the neighborhood of the idea that narrative is the medium of human thought -- that thinking just is the imposition of narrative order on experience -- then, well, that's not actually a very interesting answer. (This is sort of like asking how consciousness is possible in a material world, and then answering that it's possible because matter was conscious in the first place!) But I'm not sure Gottschall argues any such thing. Indeed, this seems to be the sort of thing he thinks it's unfair and unkind of Gopnik to have attributed to him. I guess I need to actually read this book. 

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.