Storytime: How Imagined Truths Become Reality
by Sarah Vernovsky, 2023 Design & Technology Fellow
I often think about the stories that shape our identities and worldviews. Stories can underlie mundane decisions (“sure, I’ll avoid some pesticides and buy organic berries”) or feel more meaningful (“I’ll be a good person and help this poor tourist figure out the Boston subway system.”) Some stories (“follow your dreams!”) clash with other stories (“build a comfortable life!”) and we find ourselves wavering between them. Whichever we choose, we orient ourselves with stories; they shape our conception, big and small, about the ways we and the world should be.
Storytelling makes humans who we are. As writer and historian Yuval Noah Harari notes, “All other animals use their communication system to describe reality. We use our communication system to create new realities.”1 Stories of nations and destiny move militaries while tales of “true” faith prompt crusades and diasporas. Stories of rights support international access to asylum from persecution and danger. At the micro-scale, stories praising resilience pull people through brutal hardship, and prejudices ignite vicious conflict. Narratives bind and separate us, bring us together and tear us apart.
Of course, some stories have stronger bones than others. As we live them out, we feel their worth through our physical and internal senses. Take the story of dental hygiene, which I’m free to stop believing at any time. When I do, I will undoubtedly experience the gradual onset of painful tooth decay and gum disease. If you enjoy having and using teeth, the dental hygiene story is hard to argue against.
Others are murkier. We can examine a common truism: hurting people is bad.
What about when someone hurts those we love? How often do we choose compassion over vengeance? In a movie theater, we see how much people love to watch a villain squirm. We protest when they prevail and cheer when they surrender. Screenwriters craft villains’ downfalls into flashes of restitution for justice-hungry audiences. The story becomes: “hurting people is bad, unless they deserve it.” How about when we learn the villain’s heart-wrenching backstory? Well…
Ultimately, “truth” is incredibly complex and often subjective. So, how do we ground ourselves? How do we assess the stories that shape our beliefs, and how do we know what we know? What is right, and what is wrong? Which signals do we use to discern them, and whose understanding wins out?
I slammed head-on into these questions on my first day with FASPE. During a Nazi Ethics session, we listened to a speech that Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS, delivered to his troops in 1943. He solemnly acknowledges that, unlike most party members that trivialize Jewish extermination from their cushy offices, SS men will feel the sickening weight of “what it means when 100 bodies lie together, when there are 500, or when there are 1,000.”2 Execution, he notes, is a deep, strenuous labor. What justifies this hellish task?
Himmler answers with German nationalism. Stay connected, he implores his men, to the link between your duty and German prosperity. Jews, as alleged “secret saboteurs, agitators and instigators,” contribute to the “putrefaction” of the decent, loving German people. Drawing on popular antisemitic tropes, he asserts his soldiers’ “moral right […] To kill this people who will kill us.”2
Himmler’s command for soldiers to ignore signals giving them pause was especially sobering. Don’t believe your eyes, ears, or gut when your friends and family approach you with an upstanding Jew.2 Suppress your visceral horror at the sight of mass graves. Complete the terrible task, he urges, not for the gory present, but for the utopic future. Your superhuman effort contributes to something beyond yourself; your allegiance reflects your strength of character. Ugly will be ugly, but it will not be wrong. What I call persecution and genocide, he called heroism and salvation.
After hearing Himmler’s speech, I spiraled through a string of unsettling questions. What can we delude ourselves into believing and doing? Is my sense of right and wrong, which I use to disparage Nazi ethics, not equally a story? What weight does my argument about human suffering carry when the opposing side rejects its victims’ humanity altogether? What could one soldier do, thinking differently, surrounded by gun-wielding comrades?
While wringing my hands and searching my brain, I wondered: did each perpetrator really need a rousing story? Not everyone shot a gun; some people organized identifying documents in offices or leveraged Reichsmarks to pursue business opportunities and technological advancement. How many people yawned through signing papers to authorize death sentences? How many were bored at work? Could Holocaust perpetrators be bland? For those removed from slaughter and anguish, which stories did they detach from and attach to?
Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 trial (and reporting on it by Hannah Arendt) come to mind. She asserts that Eichmann dedicated himself above all to his professional ascent. Attaching himself to his rank while detaching from human suffering, he organized mass deportations of Jews to ghettos and killing centers with a sound mind. Eichmann’s psychological impunity “enabled him to sit for months on end facing a German Jew” during his trial, not expressing remorse or acknowledging wrongdoing, but “pouring his heart to the man […] that it had not been his fault that he was not promoted.”3
To Eichmann, broader social consequences barely registered, if at all. Perhaps he rose on the (literal and figurative) backs of Jews, but the real tragedy was his boss’s failure to recognize his potential. His motives appear entirely ordinary––to make the most efficient system possible, to land that promotion. It’s no wonder Arendt coined the term “banality of evil” while reflecting on the trial.4 Eichmann was an unexciting bureaucrat.
Stepping out of these reflections, I felt jarred by the power that stories and storytellers hold. I so badly wanted Nazism to be humanity’s upside-down doppelganger with simple villains to point out and shut down. I hated to see it as any other member in the marketplace of human ideologies. Watching sites of dehumanization, trauma, misery, and death warp into sites of justice and social progress through different storytelling lenses felt indescribably destabilizing.
I doubt I’ll ever stop working through the Holocaust’s place in my personal stories. What do historical events like these reflect about human beings? What does it take to inflict harm, and when does suffering escape our notice? What do I not see in the stories I attach myself to and detach myself from? How can we predict the extent of our impact in today’s globalized, interconnected world?
The conversation cannot end with the unknown. It calls for a recalibration that begins internally.
Throughout the program, I came to align most strongly with the story of personal agency. Above all, my stories, actions, and focus are within my control. As resistance to helplessness, I choose to believe that I am as much an actor in the world as everyone else. I think less about “the way things are” and pivot to language reflecting “the way people shape the world.” I include myself within “people.”
I also look around me. Thank goodness for my cohort of fellows, and especially my Design & Technology peers and faculty. When I felt myself sinking into a questioning malaise, I looked up and saw physicists influencing science policy, designers crafting online hate speech policies, and technologists pushing to code less biased, more equitable algorithms. People can live out their ethical professional values. Will I influence the world, or will the world influence me? Maybe it’s not so binary. There’s a feedback loop woven in somewhere.
I believe that we shape life on earth through the stories we spread and embody. If history reflects glints of human nature, our actions expand the narrative. I come back to Harari, who says, “we study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.”5
I love this story. I’ll keep it.
Sarah Vernovsky was a 2023 FASPE Design and Technology Fellow. She recently completed a research assistantship in immune cell engineering at the Harvard Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.
- Harari, Yuval Noah. “What explains the rise of humans?” TED, June 2015. https://www.ted.com/talks/yuval_noah_harari_what_explains_the_rise_of_humans
- Himmler, Heinrich. “Speech at Posen.” 1943.
- Arendt, Hannah. “Postscript.” Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, 1963, p. 290.
- Arendt, Hannah. “Judgement, Appeal, and Execution.” Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, 1963, p. 252.
- Harari, Yuval Noah. “The Secret of Success.” Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, 2011, p. 241.