Why The Truth’s Not What It Used To Be

The origins of the newly released book “The Use and Abuse of Stories" can be traced to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, said Mark Freeman, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Society. (Photo illustration by Michael Ivins/Holy Cross)

Expert in how humans tell stories examines the rise of “abusive storytelling,” in which facts can be ignored or manipulated by the storytellers.

An expert in how stories shape a person's worldview said Americans are living in a contentious culture in which facts — or "facts" — can change according to the teller’s emotion or opinion, but noted that people should not give up hope in the concept of truth.

“As humans we’re wired for story,” said Mark Freeman, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Society, narrative psychology expert and co-editor of the newly released book “The Use and Abuse of Stories.” “But narrative is a complex undertaking; it can heal and it can wound. And it can have consequences we don’t anticipate. It’s important that we talk about the hows and whys of the stories we create. And it’s extra important that we be vigilant about the ways in which stories can be manipulated for nefarious purposes.”

Freeman indicated that the term “the abuse of stories” is an apt description for the self-serving manipulation of narrative and the devolution of truth that has emerged over the past decade. He dates the origins of the book back to the 2016 election.

Man with beard and glasses sits back in desk chair, facing the camera
“As humans we’re wired for story,” said Mark Freeman, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Society, narrative psychology expert, author and editor.

“I began watching what was happening with Trump’s first campaign,” he said. “And I was continually seeing the word ‘narrative’ used in the context of politics. The question ‘What’s the narrative?’ became a buzzphrase."

With increasing concern, Freeman said he began to observe the way facts were being ignored or manipulated in the larger political arena and in the fast-moving, tech-driven world of new media. 

“I began to see all the dangers of narrative,” he said, “taken from what I was just witnessing in the world: from Trump, from newscasts, from periodicals, from podcasts. The conspiracy theories being passed along were getting stranger and more extreme. I think at this point, most of us have come into contact with people who became victims of ‘post-truth’ narratives. And what’s both interesting and deeply unsettling is that it’s not just the ‘forgotten’ and disaffected who fell under the sway of patently false narratives. I, therefore, began to see what I came to call ‘narrative solipsism’ — being sealed inside a narrative no matter how much the weight of evidence and facts argue against its truth.”

Book cover featuring an abstract painting
Freeman's new book was published by Oxford University Press in 2023.

Given the state of the contemporary world, in this context and beyond, Freeman is fully aware of how easy it is to fall into despair — especially for young people.

From a variety of metrics, he notes, “it appears that young people are having great difficulty these last few years coping with so many new pressures and uncertainties. They’ve grown up being exposed to all manner of political fiction and conspiracy theories. This is a complex problem. Social media is a part of it. COVID was a part of it. The climate is a part of it. The political world is a part of it. There are so many things going on that, on some level, are being metabolized . . . if you’re at all cognizant of the world.  And it can begin to feel as if you’re under siege."

Freeman hopes “The Use and Abuse of Stories” is seen as an invitation to discuss topics that are central not only to narrative studies, but also to the future of social and political life, noting that “this is a matter of some urgency and is about nothing less than the future of democracy and, even more, the possibility of living in a shared world.”