Gut Check: Why I Hate Stories
Last Sunday, the New York Post ran a piece on a book on the real story behind the Kitty Genovese killing--the story of a young woman who was brutally raped and murdered in March 1964 while her neighbors did nothing, despite hearing her cries. Indeed, she was raped and murdered, but the neighbors did not ignore her cries. They tried to save her.
I’ve been told the false version of this event five or six times over the years, usually by people who say it with the authority of someone who knows a bit of history that you don’t.
I emphasize “bit,” because that’s all you need to exert a little “bit” of superiority at a social gathering. People like the story because it illustrates something intrinsically negative about New York City, about the coldness of its people, about the modern era of neglect and suffering. Who really cares if it’s false? New York City is an awful place, and this story just proves it.
As a born and raised cynic (thanks mom), I can smell BS--which usually comes in the shape of a perfect story, one that is simple, understandable, shocking, memorable. All ghost stories function like that, which is why they live forever--despite never ever occurring in real life. But something too airtight always feels full of hot air.
I never called BS on the Kitty story because I had no facts, just an intuition. Plus you don’t want to take risks with a story that features such brutality. Just let it be told. You lose nothing by not questioning it.
It’s that avoidance of confrontation I and others express that allows so many modern-day hoaxes to take place. Whether it’s the racial slur spray painted on the driveway of a football player, or a homophobic jab scribbled on a restaurant receipt--you must assume a substantial risk when you question their validity. Interesting point of fact: nearly all--if not all--fake hate crime hoaxes are designed to create a right-wing culprit--the white angry bigot. But if anyone actually knows one of those assholes, he or she rarely is creative enough to pull off such high drama. This is why hoaxes are so easily apparent: as my buddy Gavin points out, the dramatic flourish is almost entirely the product of a left-wing persona. And it’s almost always the case that it IS a left winger behind the fake hate.
So now it turns out the story of Kitty’s evil neighbors is at best wildly exaggerated, or, more bluntly, a lie; one that smeared some decent people trying to help the poor dying woman. Will this new information matter to the people who like to tell the old version of the story? Not really. For three reasons:
- They didn’t read the article that debunked the myth.
- People like me are too lazy or polite to embarrass the re-teller when they start in with the fabrication.
- They already know the story is low in fact, but enjoy the high of storytelling.
And you do get a high from telling stories, that’s for sure. Telling a great story is quite an achievement, one I’d admit I am not good at. I’m too impatient to tell a story, and that impatience prevents the timing necessary for good storytelling. I will usually start with the conclusion and work backwards--not a good methodology for keeping people interested.
But also, one man’s story is another man’s lie.
A month ago, America was caught in a game of pedophilia ping pong, watching a young woman named Dylan Farrow lob an accusation of molestation across the pages of the New York Times at Woody Allen and Woody’s surrogates lobbing a denial right back.
Dylan’s story was powerful--especially the first paragraph, as she depicts the molestation. It convinced me that Woody was scum. But then came Robert Weide’s piece on it, in which he persuasively and methodically debunks the accusations, and I changed my mind. I mean, who decides to molest a child in the home of a person you’re in a heated custody battle with, just because you have 15 minutes free to wander up to an attic you rarely visit?
Then I read another piece, by a woman familiar with the family and the case, and my mind changed again. I realized this case was not only none of my business, it was also turning into a time suck for gawkers. Is the truth perverted, or Allen?
Why can’t it be both?
I came to a conclusion about stories. They are truth remixed, and remixed again, until what is left is a seamless dance-floor-filling thumper. A story is a corralled collection of moments that gets the crowd moving in a particular direction.
Reality television’s main sickness is not its banal characters but the desperate attempts to fashion stories out of them when there are none. Hence every single show on Bravo is roughly scripted from tropes and clichés--many recently invented but already horrifically tiresome:
- The conflict between competitive friends over a new suitor
- The attention-grabbing spat in a public place (usually involving a wine glass’s contents tossed in someone’s face; this always ends in whispered and weepy discussions in hallways and cars)
- The night out in a club where someone gets hammered, while someone else gets ignored and breaks down in tears over the direction of her life
- The hook-up that everyone condemns; the woman is a gold-digger; the guy a shirtless hunk of man-meat
- The makeover that lifts spirits of a plain Jane before a big but wholly manufactured night out or charity event for pets
- The hot ex that shows up out of nowhere to compete against the new boy friend. Clearly he could not give a shit, but they’re paying him, so why not?
- The new business venture that involves handbags, tacky jewelry, or the baking of cupcakes
- Devastating news that something bad happened (that isn’t really that bad--someone they barely know had an accident--but now that casual pal becomes a “dear family friend”)
Here’s my philosophy on stories. They can be true. They can be false. But when they are manufactured from the latter to appear as the former? Ugh.
Ever since Penn Jillette told me he thought most documentaries are phony (aside from his own, Tim’s Vermeer, of course), in my gut I knew he was right. A documentary is easier to fake than fiction. Remember Catfish? Super Size Me? I’m sure they were real in the sense that everything you see on film actually happened. But you can make a story out of anything given no deadline and a camera.
This is why I will willingly accept a tiny rodent named Stewart playing in a soccer game among young boys without being crushed, with Jonathan Lipnicki scoring a winning goal. But I cannot stomach a single story line from The Bachelor or Bachelorette. I hate being lied to--unless of course I’m lying to myself.
Political stories are evil and never to be trusted. Statistics are better, but that kind of “better” also means “boring.” It’s why anecdotes reign supreme and why politically correct tales of bullying and triumph go unquestioned. Dismiss that story, and you look like a bastard. Me.
The moment President Obama trots out a family, or a single mom, or a troubled teen, I know it’s not about facts but emotion. Emotion is an easy way to win an argument, especially when the numbers aren’t on your side. But it still wins (temporarily, I hope), as long as you have a media who thinks those stories matter--true or false.
Stories suck, on the left, to be sure, but also on the right.
Ted Cruz creates a wonderful story of a man standing up against an increase in the debt ceiling. But he does so without fashioning a happy ending... or any ending, for that matter. Maybe it will be included in the Blu Ray version. Suing the government over the NSA is also a great story for Rand Paul. But we know how this ends, which makes the story a waste of time and energy. The fact is, no leader in a real position of power wants to own a terror attack. And that attack will likely occur again in our lifetimes. After all, that’s a full time career for terrorists, so they’re bound to get one right every decade. But if that attack occurs after a politician has successfully shelved the spy programs, that politician is dead meat.
Maybe it’s time to stop focusing on great stories and think about winning. Or rather, winning back control of a country from the world’s greatest story teller we’ve ever known. You don’t need stories for 2016, just the dismal facts of all the shit that came before it.
But you also need the ability to be persuasively correct.
Obama has provided more than enough of the ugly facts--he’s a font of documentable misery. But who possesses the second piece: that skill to directly tell the truth in persuasive terms without the added phoniness of tall tales? We don’t need to make any crap up. The last six years have been a horror story that makes Carrie look like Benji. So enough with the stories. Substance wrapped in style, please. Facts, with flourishes.
Having said all that, I just finished watching 13 episodes of season two of House of Cards. It’s really a shame about Adam Galloway.
Greg Gutfeld is a mainstay on Fox News as co-host of The Five and the host of Red Eye. He's also the NY Times best-selling author of The Joy of Hate: How to Triumph over Whiners in the Age of Phony Outrage. His new book Not Cool, is now available for Pre-order. For more from Greg check out his official site or follow him on Twitter.