Mental Violence and Toxic Narratives

I have been meaning to write on narrative ethics for a while now, but haven’t had the chance yet to finish a piece I started on quite a while back.  So when a friend of mine told me of other bloggers writing on the dangers of narrative – specifically on esotericism, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster – I was pleasantly surprised.  I’ll just add in my two cents, briefly, based on my research into human nature.

Humans are composite creatures: we are partially biological, and partially cultural.  A human without culture is a mess, studies of feral children are enough to make clear that no further experimentation in that direction should be allowed.  The cultural part of humanity is not insignificant.  It is what completes us biologically.  We biologically need to learn a culture, and stories are the primary means of teaching culture.

So when humans tell stories (including true stories, I’m not talking only fiction), they are no trivial matter.  These stories “finish” us, they embed in our brains and become part of our bodies.  Desecrations of stories and symbols are a form of violence.  They don’t just upset people a little bit, they upset people A LOT, and with good reason.  People die, and kill, for symbols and stories, it happens all the time.  Think of protecting flags in war, or suicide bombers.

Insulting someone’s narrative calls into question their very self, who they are, as a composite creature.  It is, perhaps, the equivalent of trying to grab part of their body and pull it off (and perhaps replace it with a new piece, because every piece of symbolic and/or narrative violence is an attempt to show another narrative is superior).

We need to pay attention to bits of culture competing with each other.  The author of the above linked post is right that narratives are dangerous, and some like the FSM are simple weapons, meant only for attack purposes, for tearing down.  Humor just makes it attractive.  Of course, everyone has an arsenal of attack narratives at their disposal, we learn them as we acquire identity in our childhood (e.g. group X = universal goodness, group Y = universal evil).  But weapons need to be used judiciously.  Indiscriminate destruction – even just with words – is dangerous and wrong.

The ethics of narratives are serious business as we grow in power to disseminate culture.  Some even speak of “cultural engineering” which sounds about as safe to me as starting to pull random clumps of neurons out of people’s heads.  Media is a very free place in our society, and the internet is just adding to our freedom.   But the results affect us all.  As cultural narratives struggle, we will feel the effects and our individual natures will be affected.  Let’s hope it is not only a matter of “survival of the fittest,” as in reddest in tooth and claw, but rather survival of what makes us good, moral, people.  But I’m not holding my breath.


4 responses to “Mental Violence and Toxic Narratives

  • David

    Great thoughts Brian, this really opened up my understanding of the ideas I was addressing through a mytho-poetic lens.

    Have you read Giordano Bruno’s Bonds in General? It deals with the building up and breaking down of these composite structures which he sees as created by iconography tied to erotic bonds, or bonds of desire. Ioan Couliano saw it as a manual for cultural engineering, his Eros & Magic in the Renaissance describes how these ideas have affected contemporary marketing and propaganda.

    What I’ve been studying is the automatic emergence of narratives via digital communication, and the strengthening of narratives within the digital sphere. That’s why I focused on the FSM. A normally innocuous joke, when put into the digital setting, becomes a dangerous vacuum for meaning. Charisma (in Weber’s sense) is cheap on the web, you can put up a template and some pithy writing and your idea becomes as valid in a cultural sense as a true expert. So something like the FSM becomes capable of much more than it normally would as just a t-shirt or something like that.

  • Brian

    Thanks, David. I’ll respond more later (gotta keep this blog in second place to my real work!)

  • Brian

    I have not read Bruno or Couliani, but thanks to Ted I have heard of both. Bruno, of course, gets mentioned a lot in other places too. The two texts you mentioned by the above sound interesting, and no doubt are things I should read. I find it to be fascinating how the theory for how to do “cultural engineering” has been in existence for centuries, but only now, as it is beginning to be actualized in conscious ways, and manifesting through technology, are we beginning to understand the meanings and dangers in it.

    The automatic emergence of narratives? Interesting stuff! cultural evolution at work, with humans as the semi-conscious participants in selection. I would argue that the emergence you are examining is cultural evolution at high speed. The internet produces millions of ideas that either “go forth and multiply” or die a quiet, cold death. One successful idea, like the FSM, and it explodes rapidly to fill an ecological niche – the parody religion niche – who knew such a thing could even exist prior to that! But now it does. A “vacuum of meaning” is a good phrase, seems like some kind of weapon in a kafkaesque video game. But no, wait! Its real life!

    The mental and cultural realm is growing and growing, and I don’t think anyone yet can conceive of what it can become, or what it will do to us. Some philosophers of technology consider the autonomy of technology, but what I think they are really describing is the autonomy of culture, an entity only partially under our control, with the power to form us and become us, like a disembodied spirit lodging in our brains and possessing us. Talk to anyone who has had a profound conversion experience and the evidence is there.

    Cheap charisma – good insight. Weber was an insightful thinker, and I still struggle with whether rationalization and meaning are really in tension of not, that is an interest of mine. I think that he is really parsing two kinds of rationality, mechanical and teleological, the first kind of which drains meaning and the second of which creates meaning. But these are fairly unformed ideas, rooted in Aristotle, Aquinas, and cognitive science. Does the web drain meaning or create it? Both, and often at the same time, just in different ways for different people.

    Deployment of cultural weapons for mental violence can give joyful purpose in life, and the internet is a battleground of idea, where people stock up by reading at one website then unleash in the comments on another! And people are affected by these attacks, again, converts are the proof. That is why every religion or ideology (Dawkins’s website has a converts corner too) holds up converts as trophies: they won a battle for a mind. Now tack that mind up on the wall and go hunting again. Weird stuff.

  • Battle of the Tiger Mother « TheMoralMindfield

    […] supply us with direction.  We just do not have adequate biological instincts, as I’ve noted in a previous post, feral children are enough to show that.  Our parents are our first […]

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