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Let’s talk about fairy stories. Let me think about some of the narratives that others have created and which, I think need challenging. Later I’ll talk about how theatre should be involved in the process. First, Let me map out some of the ways I think we are being diverted from the authentic, the plausible and the genuine and led into a sham world where issues are beyond our grasp. Let me, for an example, consider the plethora of conspiracy theories and hoaxes I see promoted on the Internet. Why do we get so worked up about them? These are flung about and consumed with the same zeal as Coca Cola and Macdonalds or Dom Perignon and Heston Blumental’s snail porage and with the same disregard to nutrition. And despite any evidence to the contrary, conspiracy theorists will cling on to these ideas like drowning sailors to a piece of driftwood or politicians to their scrap of power so that no-one can prise their fingers therefrom.
Here’s a fairy story: There was once a wicked witch in the West. Originally she was from the East where she had believed that everything that mattered could be weighed and measured and there was no need for any of the airy fairy flim flam that so many mortals worried about. But she had a rather beastly time in the East so she transported herself on her broomstick to the West where she developed a grudge against the gooey, sticky parts of mortal life that made her feel unhappy and she came to want to destroy everything that could not be weighed and measured. She thought that everybody else should shut themselves in a cupboard and just go away. But nobody would listen to her silly ideas so she wrote all her grievances in a little book. And then she died and with her last breath she cursed the world and wished that all mortals be turned to stone because in that way they could be weighed and measured. At first, anybody who read her book laughed at it because it was very silly and childish. (And very badly written.) But one day some greedy and selfish crooks thought that they would do better out of the world if greed and selfishness were the made the things to be, so they took the wicked witch’s silly book and said to all their friends that this book had magic powers and would change the world as they wanted. And gradually the book was passed around and, because these men said that the book was true. Slowly, slowly, the magic spell began to work and a dark shadow was unleashed upon the whole world because everybody believed that this was true and, what’s more, how things had to be. And faster and faster, all the good things that were in people’s hearts like love and friendship (because the wicked witch had said such things were unfeasibly gooey and sticky) were replaced by selfishness and greed and hate and fear and everybody felt unhappy but they didn’t know why. And they began to blame everything that was good and speak out for the evil things that were now rampaging through the world even though they were making themselves more and more unhappy. And one of these crooks whispered in the ear of another powerful witch from another country and she said that everything that had gone before was now to be forgotten and laughed at. And so it was. The darkness descended on the world like a thick choking fog. And people had no way of defending themselves against it and they began to turn to stone because a stone is easily weighed and measured.
OK not a very good fairy story but the best I can do. It’s here to illustrate the notion that ideas can be passed around and believed despite any evidence to the contrary. This is called cognitive bias. We are all cognitively biased one way or another. There are many things we believe because… well, because we believe them. And the unhappiness it causes is called cognitive dissonance.
If you haven’t guessed already, the originator of all this tale is Russian born pulp fiction writer, Ayn Rand. In Ayn Rand’s grindingly awful world stability would be achieved by having no government and with all individuals concerned only with their own ends. Altruism would be discounted and only self-interest allowed. What is frightening is that her bonkers belief became widespread among people who became big players in Silicon Valley and, eventually, though Alan Greenspan right into the heart of US government where the ideas brought about the collapse of two world economies; that of South east Asia in the nineteen nineties and the whole western economy in 2008. We shudder at this nonsense, these bizarre ideas of individual isolation one from another which have so thoroughly soaked into contemporary society through the vectors of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher the latter who famously said “There is no such thing as society”. Yes, it’s true, she did actually say that in an interview with Women’s Own Magazine on 31st October 1987 and it was an idea directly channelled from Rand.
While these policies derived some intellectual underpinning from economists such as Friedman and Hayek, it was essentially Rand’s philosophy that was at the stony heart of the whole enterprise.
And when this philosophy was put into action it devolved power from governments to the banks. And the banks had only one end in view – accumulating money. It was an extraordinary display of open and naked greed, a great slobbering banquet that continued for years until nearly every cupboard and fridge was empty whilst the rest of us looked on in horror. This was Ayn Rand’s philosophy of self-interest written on a world scale. And in the end it was the small person who was left with a monstrous bill for the beanfeast which he or she was absolutely and utterly unable to dispute. What’s more the small person was made to feel the guilty parties in this farrago. We feel powerless before this swelling tide. We cannot cope so we turn our faces to the wall, reach for the remote control or pound, pound, pound mindlessly along the clifftop and in the end we do nothing at all about it.
“But, hey! Hang about!” Says Skidmore looking up from his drink.. “Here you are banging on about not believing in conspiracy theories of the world and you’ve just farted out one of the biggest. The virtual collapse of Western Civilization brought about by a pulp fiction writer. How come you can believe in this and not the one about the moon-landings or whatever?” Well, OK., Skidders. You, of course, have me banged to rights. That is my cognitive bias coming to the fore. Except that I would defend myself by saying that actually all of this is well known and documented. The people involved are open and have discussed it. They admit to it openly. The perpetrators speak freely about it with little remorse. The banks did a job and they got away with it, bonuses and all. So this is a conspiracy that is actually happening now and is a proud part of modern economics.
OK. Here is another story and one I was involved in and know, hand on heart, to be true.
I was travelling by train down Italy and happened to share a compartment with a young Swedish guy. He was affable and easy going but for some reason he felt compelled to show me the contents of his suitcase. It was literally stuffed full of bank notes. He happily explained how he had sold everything he owned and was taking the cash to join a group in Corfu, the then headquarters of the Scientology movement. I knew nothing about Scientology and he persuaded me to meet up with him on the island and he would show me round. As it turned out the headquarters was a large rusting hulk moored in the harbour. The acolytes, having handed over all their worldly possessions were living and eating in communal dormitories in fairly Spartan conditions. Nothing strange there. There was any number of weird cults living communal lives at that time. Except that the “Clears” the officers or priests or whatever they were, seemed to have a high old time frequenting the bars and taverns of the town and the founder of the cult, the science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard was living further down the quayside in a large white motor yacht draped with bikini-clad lovelies. Cognitive dissonance on the grandest of grandiose scales. I declined the opportunity to throw in my lot with them.
And the same applies to the Nigerian Princess scam and other hoaxes. Apparently the far-fetched nature of the narrative is designed to eliminate all but the most gullible. The scammers want to weed out anyone who might cause trouble but for the poor unfortunate who falls for the scheme they will be drawn gradually into a web of intrigue. Once you have parted with your details, or even the thousand dollars the Princess needs to pay bribes, you are hooked and you will put aside your doubts because you are now afraid of losing your first investment or even from fear that you will be made to look stupid by not following up on the deal. The deeper in we get, the more we earnestly believe and the harder it is for rational thinking to apply.
And as I dig deeper into this morass I seem to see that what ties this all together and fuels its onward march is this disengagement I was talking about earlier. Not only a disengagement from politics but from humanity itself. All of these phenomena that I've touched on have their roots in a distancing from, not only the levers of power, but the actual machinery of common human existence. The Conspiracy theorists, The Randists, the Scientologists, the Bankers, the Rhapsodists, the Capitalists and other hoaxers and scammers. Who can tell them apart? They see a world so maddened that it can be driven for their own ends. And so they can disseminate their own stories, the conspiracies, the year zero, the religions, the accumulation of money - anything to give them some justification for their existence. Their stories spread. We desire an explanation for the entirely unearned misfortunes that befall us. It seems somehow easier to believe a complex lie than the simple truth. As Joseph Goebbels is often misquoted as saying “in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily”. In other words “The bigger the lie, the easier it is to believe.” Thus the welter of propaganda of the press and the internet is lapped up by people who feel they simply do not have the time or the resources to cut through to the truth. The stories become the narrative of a whole people and, as such, they become the truth of the politicians, the spiritual leaders, the wealthy that they can manipulate to maintain their status.
"We were taught that we were being persecuted because we were God's chosen people and that the world outside didn't understand us," Anna Baron The Polygamists Daughter.
So, Skidmore, I’m going to try to engage with the world and encourage all other artists to fill the gap that the media, both official and social, have left or have deliberately avoided.
Theatre is, and should be the art of engagement. It is collaborative, social. It contacts the deepest levels of human experience. But yet I know that if I try to use my playwriting to counteract this nonsense then I am in danger of losing my perspective. My own cognitive bias will become only too apparent and that may not ultimately fit with the characters I portray. What’s more a one sided polemic can only be as dull as ditchwater to an audience. I must see and understand. I must engage with my subject matter in a way that will allow my characters to speak with their own truth. Above all I must let the audience engage with my characters and tease out a different narrative from the one they might have accepted up to that point. But in order to do that, I must follow Nietzsche’s thinking and endeavour to understand myself first.