Shared fictions

‘Human power depends on mass cooperation, mass cooperation depends on manufacturing mass identities – and all mass identities are based on fictional stories, not on scientific facts or even on economic necessities.’

‘When you give up all the fictional stories, you can observe reality with far greater clarity than before, and if you really know the truth about yourself and about the world, nothing can make you miserable. But that is of course much easier said than done.’ 

Yuval Noah Harari posits that mass cooperation has always operated from belief in shared fictions. As an undergraduate, in animated discussion very late at night, I reached a similar conclusion almost thirty years ago. Mine was more a description of mass societal hallucination but nevertheless it felt like an important observation at the time. The question – what is the relevance of Harari’s insight for contemporary Australians? – is important and worth all of us exploring in our own lives.

Humans appear to be the only creatures that invent stories and have the ability to communicate them convincingly to others, on mass. Harari discusses religious stories, explaining how these shared fictions have assisted humans to cooperate, if indeed most believe the story to be true and find it worth following the precepts suggested, or in some cases, demanded. Oral storytelling and literature provided many stories that we understand to be useful fictions. Religion is another fiction, like money, that has been a useful tool in assisting humans to cooperate. Harari explains:

“The difference between holy books and money, for example, is far smaller than it may seem at first sight. When most people see a dollar bill, they forget that it is just a human convention. As they see the green piece of paper with the picture of the dead white man, they see it is as something valuable in and of itself. They hardly ever remind themselves ‘Actually, this is a worthless piece of paper, but because other people view it as valuable, I can make use of it.’”

In Australia, it is difficult to know if ‘I can make use of it’ extends to politicians and religion due to personal belief or because of the nature of established, not yet anachronistic, power structures to which they are beholden. Probably both.

Truth and power often do not work well as a team. Historically, those who want power need to operate by spreading or confirming fictions. They need to demonstrate their adherence to (and support of) the story. Harari makes the point  that throughout history many faced the dilemma: do I serve power or truth? Harari, ‘after some soul searching’, chose not to self-censor his opinions and arguments. He is Israeli and highly critical of what the education system in his country teaches:

‘Israeli Jews, who are educated from kindergarten to think that Judaism is the superstar of human history. Israeli children usually finish twelve years of school without receiving any clear picture of global historical processes…the only coherent history offered by the Israeli educational system begins with the Hebrew Old Testament, continues to the Second Temple era, skips between various Jewish communities in the Diaspora, and culminates with the rise of Zionism, the Holocaust, and the establishment of the state of Israel.’

He encourages readers to speak the truth about their countries too. He understands the challenges in doing this as most people, heavily ‘invested’ in the stories formed from early childhood by parents, teachers and their culture, are likely to use intellect to rationalise the story than to doubt it. In many societies, anyone who tries to speak out is ostracised or persecuted. Harari goes onto say:

‘…it takes strong nerves to question the very fabric of society. For if indeed the story is false, then the entire world as we know it makes no sense. State laws, social norms, economic institutions – they might all collapse. Most stories are held together by the weight of their roof rather than by the strength of their foundations. Consider the Christian story. It has the flimsiest of foundations. What evidence do we have that the son of the Creator of the entire universe was born as a carbon-based life form somewhere in the Milky Way about 2,000 years ago?’

The author continues, even though ‘Adam and Eve never existed’ and that much of the Bible is fictional ‘it can still bring joy to billions and can still encourage humans to be compassionate, courageous and creative – just like other great works of fiction, such as Don Quixote, War and Peace and Harry Potter’. This seems obvious but I never see Australian politicians asked to enunciate their beliefs about such matters or asked, do you believe in a supernatural deity?

Harari makes some very familiar arguments about religions and reality but his most interesting observations are about the return of Nationalism, challenging narratives about Globalisation and immigration, as demonstrated through the election of Donald Trump in the USA and British voters support of BREXIT. The spread of authoritarianism and rise of ’strongmen’ – such as Putin, Modhi, Trump, Erdogan, Orbán and Duterte – with little respect for democratic principles, although they all seem happy enough with market-based capitalism and religion, is clearly a trend. In the Western World, until very recently, the story of secular, liberal democracy supported by rational, applied science and allied with capitalism, had been an unchallenged paradigm (especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989). Also, China, a non-democratic, one-party state that has managed to improve living standards for hundreds of millions of citizens, challenges this once-dominant Western paradigm. How is that such a system can improve the lives of so many of its citizens?

Australian democracy is not immune to these challenges and it is in this context that we, collectively as a nation, need to be led sensibly, and with integrity, if the population is maintain a belief in democracy as a useful tool for mass cooperation. Should democracy be viewed as a shared fiction? One that still permits change if citizens are active and leaders courageous? If a shared fiction is required, properly functioning, transparent democratic rule, seems inherently useful. I will twist the issue Harari raises, that ‘laws, social norms, economic institutions – they might all collapse’ if the fiction is not perpetuated, to argue that unless change is wrought our democratic society risks imploding through disbelief, inaction and disingenuous political leadership that benefits just a few powerful individuals, vested interests and corporations. Australians must insist this does not continue to happen.

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Education and Environmental Policy (sic) in Contemporary Australia

Why do Australia politicians espouse evidence-based policy for education and the environment but do the opposite? These politicians are supporting old power structures, or fictions, no longer believed by enough Australians to make them useful. Reality calls for different policies and more intelligent, courageous leadership.

Climate change science has been constantly undermined by Australian politicians. These same politicians always seem to purport belief in a supernatural deity too (and I can not think of an example of a non-believer who denies climate change but imagine there is). The new Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, is both a Pentecostal Christian and an advocate for coal. He has no difficulty in praying to a supernatural being seeking assistance for others but is apparently unable to make policy decisions that will allow humans to help themselves ameliorate the worst environmental challenges bought on by industrialisation and pollution. It seems very obvious that powerful vested interests have much to lose financially if the state moves away from fossil fuels to other energy sources.

Cognitive dissonance, in a nation where the leader of the country relies on fictions that are no longer shared or useful, is rife. Perhaps more tellingly, when that same leader does not follow the Christian values he purports to hold, more confusion about our shared identity results. There are many sensible questions that naturally arise. What happened to evidence-based policy in government? Is science a fiction? Why is it that the leader of a secular nation is praying to a supernatural deity? How ethical is it that this same leader invests billions in schools that are founded on religious institutions that believe in the same deity? Isn’t this similar to what has happened in (previously secular) Turkey?

The religious makeup of Australia has shifted during the last 50 years and only a very small percentage of those who identify a religion attend church regularly. The 2016 census revealed that 22.6% of the population identify as Catholic, 13.3% Anglican, 16.3% are ‘other Christians’ and over 30% of Australians have ‘no religion’. The proportion of people reporting to be affiliated with a religion other than Christianity has increased from 2.6% in 1991 to 8.2% in 2016. In 1966, 88% of the population were Christians. This shared fiction still permeates our politics even though the churches are empty. These numbers will reduce further at the next census, especially since the terrible revelations from the recent Royal Commission and the trial of George Pell, the third most senior Catholic.

At a time where Australia is demonstrably becoming less religious our political leaders are more so. The overwhelming majority of state premiers and opposition leaders believe in a supernatural deity, as does the Prime Minister and Federal Opposition Leader. This is worthy of mention for the simple reason that education policy is demonstrably impacted on by these beliefs. While writing this post the NSW Premier was alleged to have personally called the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney while she was in Rome to allay fears that NSW would block a $4.5 billion federal funding deal for schools. Considering this is the opposite of her Government’s public pronouncements, citizens cannot fail to be concerned. Academics, even those with religious beliefs, have been showing how Australia has been ‘Taking God to School’ for some decades now.

The state of play

Stories create paradigms that unify groups and assist cooperation. Australia is at a crossroads and needs better political leadership. The moment too many stop believing the societal story, economic, political or religious, the system falls apart. Trust is essential but importantly, our stories must be useful to maintaining a sense of purpose, harmony and direction.

If another story comes along that is more believable (or useful) the earlier fiction ceases to hold believers in its thrall. Enlightenment era science, and later the theory of evolution, led to doubt amongst Christians that the Bible was the literal word of God or that an afterlife – to torment or reward – awaited. The moment an individual no longer trusts that the money in their wallet or bank account will be useful, the currency depreciates. Of course, this trust is lost when other components of the system fail. Obvious examples are the Wall Street Crash in 1929, inflation in Weimar Germany or more recently, the Global Financial Crisis bought on by the sub-prime loans scandal in the USA or when society does not tax corporations appropriately, community confidence is lost.

Is the democratic system broken or will it allow transition to new policy needed to educate our people and protect the biosphere? We have to choose. In a democracy it is possible to change the direction of society and to make intelligent plans for the future. Harari writes reassuringly about our collective challenges. Even though ‘all these big stories are fictions generated by our own minds, there is no reason for despair’. Reality is still there, he tells us.

According to the latest analysis of the likely impact of climate change, we have very little time to look this reality in the face and make some changes to the beliefs and values we share. Harari’s insights are essential ones if we are to have an educated populace that can manage the environmental challenges that are upon us. Faith in a supernatural deity, or acquiescence to the tales told by those with vested interest in preserving the status quo, are fictions we can no longer afford. If such mindsets are preventing politicians from making decisions, or the community from understanding, in the interest of a shared future, we need to talk about it honestly.

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I encourage you to read Harari’s books. The latest one can be explored here.

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