So this week, I was reading The Men Who Stare At Goats, the original Jon Ronson book published in 2004 about the prevalence in the US military of some rather strange ideas concerning extra-sensory perception and telekinetic abilities, and other generally “new age-y” concepts.
I had previously seen the movie of the same title and, while I could see where every element of the movie’s story came from in the book, it was not in any way a “movie of the book” the way that, say, Lord of the Rings was the movies of the books. A scriptwriter had stitched together a narrative out of the interviews and snippets of information that Ronson displayed to put forward a fun idea.
But I was struck by something. The narrative was, above all, a fun story. But Ronson’s book is, in the end, a story not about the fun but about how fun stories are used to bury unpleasant facts.
One particular example he used was the “soundtrack” of the sleep deprivation and torture methods being used in Iraq. The list of annoying or maddening songs included, in amongst the discordant heavy metal, the “I Love You” song sung by Barney. I remembered how that story had been a thing for a while at the time. It was something that people laughed about. And in laughing, forgot the basic fact that it was part of a torture regime.
In the same way, the movie used a fun story to gloss over the ways in which psychological operations and more mind-centred approaches to warfare and causing suffering or death had grown up out of a genuine belief (the “New Earth Battalion Operations Manual”) that kindness could be made a method of winning conflicts. Somehow, the “kindness” part got lost in the mechanisms and only the conflict remained.
It made me wonder where in today’s world is the same thing happening? I think just about any Hollywood version of history probably does this to some extent, but the real problem is when the present day story in the news is masked using these techniques.
By “fun story”, other examples in the book show, is meant not only “entertaining” but also “are attractive to believe in”. And that technique is used a lot. It isn’t always “truthiness” (things that aren’t true but feel like they ought to be) but a similar kind of bias. The smoothing out of narratives around sex work, for example, or BDSM, are both areas in which the comfortable, safe, “fun” story often erases or covers up awkward narratives that fit neither the “pro” nor the “anti” camp. Indeed, this was one of the criticisms of the “facesitting protest” against the new ATVOD censorship.
With the rise in social media, it is perhaps harder for a single narrative to take hold in the same way as it could even ten years ago, although the Tories certainly managed it with their election strategy: their fun story was that Labour had caused the debt crisis by “overspending”, rather than by deregulating the banking industry in line with Tory policy.
The other question was what a writer can do to prevent their story being “fun-ised” like that. I don’t think anything can be done. People will misquote or smooth out what is inconvenient. The only way around it is to be easy to find as the original source. Even then, as I’m sure happens with Ronson’s book, people will miss the nuance because awkward truths are awkward.
Is there a moral to this meandering? I’m not sure. I guess the lesson is that it’s important to accept awkwardness because that’s how we learn to make real change possible. But that in itself feels like a smoothing over of reality.