Questioning our Stories

I’ve always been a tester as long as I remember. When someone tells me something out of the ordinary … well, it’s not that I don’t trust your judgement or anything but I would like to know if there are facts to back that up. Even though I must admit that at first I would only look for confirming evidence (before I knew about confirmation bias), but if I could not find it I would get suspicious. Even if someone is honestly telling you what they believe, they can still be wrong. That’s how I’ve always felt about a family claim of Cherokee ancestry — especially since the details seemed lost to time. Not a name, not even a certain spot on the family tree. Grandpa’s grandma … or great grandma … or maybe great-great grandma? In search of evidence, I got a DNA test with one of the commercial providers which showed that there is negligible trace of Native American DNA in my genome, and even that is speculative.

It’s not just me being skeptical. I’ve always thought it was fun to tease out the details of a claim and see what I can find. Even finding out for sure something is not really true is a discovery. I forget sometimes that not everyone feels this way. I showed my results to some family members, and they seemed put out by the result — even digging in their heels. I felt a little bit guilty about that. I’d heard it so much from my family, not just my parents but from aunts and uncles too, that it feels a bit like I am smearing my family’s narrative about its history.

It reminds of the way that humans — ever since language was invented, apparently — have made up stories to not just entertain themselves but to bolster ideas like national identity and family claims. Even much of the things we are taught about our national histories fit into a narrative. What I learned as American history in school turned out to be not lies, really, but often selected truths and perspectives. The narrative supported by the powerful — what they wanted children to know. (This applied to both the public school and homeschool history.) Textbooks talked about Pilgrims and Indians getting along as equals, the overriding importance of religious freedom (though there seems to have been little of that early on), and about something called ‘manifest destiny’ in spreading across the continent. Today I have books on history that show different perspectives — perspectives of ordinary people, of workers, of the underclasses — and the idealistic narrative of American exceptionalism crumbles. I still respect the “Founding Fathers” but I no longer idolize them. They used elegant rhetoric about how “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” while still using slave labor to build America and ignoring the voice of anyone who was not a white male property owner. It was pretty rhetoric but it was never reality.

It’s not just the past, but current events too. Some news stations are known to slant towards a liberal or a conservative bias. I think what that really means is that they are both pushing their own particular narrative. Not outright lies (at least I HOPE not) but selected truths and assumed half-truths and never the whole story. That’s why I no longer trust the corporate-owned media. There is always someone behind the scenes determining what should be published or not based on reasons other than whether or not it is true and whether or not the public should know. There is an audience to cater to, and advertisers and shareholders to please. They tell the stories they want us to hear.

And, of course it makes me think of the myths of the Bible. Those old stories that were passed down by oral tradition over the generations before they were ever written down. The details of the actual events — if they happened at all — are lost to time never to be subject to fact-checking. They were ancient stories intended to bolster the national identity of Israel and to encourage devotion to a national god. In that context, claims that the Bible is ‘historical’ make sense — but as nationalistic mythmaking, not as an unbiased record of what happened.

People’s whole lives and realities are built around stories. It’s never really considered polite or patriotic to call nationalistic, family, or religious narratives into question. I think it’s important to question those stories to make sure they are true. Our questioning can at least help us bring our beliefs into better alignment with reality. On the national scale a willingness to listen to competing narratives could even stop wars.