We Are Our Stories

Not just French and Germans but everyone remembers some humiliation for which it would be gratifying to exact vengeance. We all carry at least a chip or two on our shoulders, yet few of us build monuments to credit or blame. We leave that sort of work to priests, poets and politicians. Some of their monuments go up stone by stone, like the Hermann Monument and Sacré Coeur. Others consist of widely shared stories, symbols or artistic representations. All, however, are involved in the construction of collective memory, and that construction depends above all on the universal human proclivity to construct narratives—to tell stories—whose essence is that they assign credit and blame.

We learn about credit and blame as children, though without being told that this is what is happening. From early on, parents blame their children for misdeeds, praise them for accomplishments, and take credit for their good qualities. Kids pick up the message by expecting credit when they accomplish something, but also by blaming others when they can. We grow up demanding credit, avoiding blame if possible, ourselves in turn blaming and giving credit in myriad ways. A few people receive highly visible credit or blame in the form of Nobel Prizes, Academy Awards or prison sentences. But on a smaller scale, everyone plays the game of credit and blame, and we do it virtually every day.

Assigning credit and blame involves the universal human tendency to perceive, describe and remember social experiences as stories: simplified cause-effect accounts in which A does X to B, with outcome Y. Credit- and blame-giving follow parallel logics that run backward in a few discernible steps: from some negative or positive outcome to the assignment of a value (large or small) to that outcome, to the identification of some agent that caused the outcome, to a judgment of that agent’s competence and responsibility for the action that produced the outcome. This logic awards someone who deliberately kills many people (unless they happen to be official enemies of the state) a large negative score—blame—and someone who knowingly saves many lives a large positive score—credit. The logic works as a sort of elemental justice detector.

Most of the time, we assign lesser scores for smaller derelictions and delights: Failure to meet daily obligations receives blame, while unexpected generosity receives credit. Much the same logic applies in gossip, psychological counseling, court proceedings, responses to job performance, deliberations of prize committees, online discussions, political speeches and public opinion polls. In all cases, the act of giving credit or (especially) assigning blame draws us-them boundaries: We are the worthy people, they the unworthy.

The most dramatic versions of crediting and blaming take up the responsibility for major public events, and responsible authorities naturally seek ways to evade blame. Obviously, then, assigning credit and blame is no mere game. In life, who gets credit and blame matters both retroactively and prospectively. It matters retroactively because it becomes part of the stories we tell about good and bad people (including presidents), good and bad behavior (including political behavior), and where we come from (including the fundamentals of our political tradition). It matters prospectively because it indicates whom we can trust, and whom we should mistrust.

Most broadly, such attribution matters because the process of collectively discussing and assigning credit and blame defines the boundaries of what we believe about the nature and possibilities of social life. In the stories we hear and tell reside the imaginable totality of what we and others can and cannot do, for good or ill, in the world. Since no individual can try out all available choices and behaviors and judge their consequences, we “fill in” our understanding in a process of socialization that starts when we are young, but that in truth never really stops. When elders or leaders tell stories to others in society, essentially the same process is at work: using narrative to explain causality in terms of credit and blame—just as when adults tell stories to children, only at a different level. Some say we are what we eat, and that may be so by some physiological measure. When it comes to the social and political lives of human beings, however—lives suffused by the human capacity for creating and manipulating symbols—we are what we our culture’s stories say we are.

Our stories of credit and blame take many forms but also exhibit some commonalities. One is that the storytelling process is inherently social. Even when we tell stories as individuals and about individuals, we cannot begin to do so in the absence of a social context that makes such judgments meaningful. A second commonality is that we don’t assign credit and blame for its own sake, just to create some kind of cognitive closure. We want more than closure; we want justice. We don’t settle for clever or comprehensive explanations of the behavior that caused the outcome in question. We ask that the punishment fit the crime, that the reward recognize the accomplishment, that the parties involved get their just deserts. In other words, the stories of all human cultures say we are moral beings.

Do we believe this because it is true, or it is true because we believe it? On the one hand, standards of justice vary from one population and period to another, sometimes dramatically so, which suggests the latter. On the other hand, justice is far more universal than cultural relativists imagine, suggesting the former. Those universal properties, moreover, work across a scale ranging from arguments among friends to the creation of national commissions and tribunals for the pacification of fierce political disputes.

Just as consensus on the moral idiom of credit and blame in our narratives has the effect of binding families and workmates and small groups together, so does the construction of consensus on societal and national levels bind a people together. It is not too much to say that consensus about some narrative is what makes a nation into a nation, for a nation is by definition a group of people who believe they have enough in common to share a common destiny but who, unlike a tribe or an extended family (clan), are not necessarily blood relatives and who comprise a group so large that coming physically into contact with each person is not possible. A nation, after all, can only be symbolized, since it is too large to be perceived by our immediate senses.

One way that societies achieve consensus on a national narrative has been to combine concrete and symbols in the form of war memorials, as we have seen. This is a more complex process than is often recognized. As we approach memories of victory and defeat, we enter rough ground. Our individual memories are bad enough: selective, self-serving and sometimes invented. Collective memory complicates things further. Every collective memory emerges from a contest among advocates of competing accounts concerning what happened and why. (Think how long it took, for example, for war memorials built in the United States after April 1865 to come to some roughly common equipoise of meaning between North and South.)

Every monument to the past advances some interpretations of its meaning and suppresses others. This struggle over meaning is precisely how a society wrestles with and often (but not always) arrives at some consensus over what it all means. Thus, reaching some minimal requirement for the social glue that holds people together presupposes controlled contention. It is a process that requires some selective forgetting as well as selective remembering. The monumental statue of Armin suppresses the fact that he served for years as a Roman ally who spread the use of Latin among Germans. The white domes of Sacré Coeur make no reference to the deep divisions within France dug by the Franco-Prussian War, the Commune and the basilica’s very construction. Maybe that is not as it “has to be”, but that is how it always is, in any event. In the end we are our stories, but there is nothing simple about how those stories get written or how future generations understand them.

Social Science Research Council - One Pierrepont Plaza, 15th Floor | Brooklyn, NY 11201 USA | P: 212.377.2700 | F: 212.377.2727 | E: info@ssrc.org