{Sun 1 August 2021}   True prophetess vs false prophets

True prophetess vs false prophets

Rejected but remembered: Cassandra of Troy

Photo of the painting Cassandra by Evelyn de Morgan which evokes the story of Troy. Standing in front of the burning city in a rich blue dress, her arms raised, Cassandra tugs on her long red hair as if her desperation would pull her head in two opposing directions.
by Evelyn de Morgan

Philip Oltermann’s recent report about Project Cassandra, a collaboration between Jürgen Wertheimer (University of Tübingen) and the German military, intrigued me. The goal was to study whether story — in the form of the novel — has a pragmatic value beyond entertainment, catharsis and cultural reflection/education.

The thesis was that the themes and the reception of recently published novels in a region could predict war. The conclusion: they can.

The termination of this successful project was therefore unexpected and yet… predicted in its very name. As Oltermann reports:

In the Greek myth, Cassandra’s warnings go unheeded because the Trojan priestess has been cursed by the god Apollo, angered after being turned down for sex. In Christa Wolf’s modern adaptation, the Trojan generals know she is speaking the truth, but ignore her regardless.

“King Priam prefers to remain ignorant out of political calculation,” Wertheimer says. “I used to believe modern politicians were different, that they simply didn’t know better. It turns out they are much like their ancient counterparts: they prefer not to know.”

Philip Oltermann, At first I thought, this is crazy’: the real-life plan to use novels to predict the next war, The Guardian, 26/06/21

Although the Trojan leaders did not listen to Cassandra, her story, including the terrible consequences of their hubris, has echoed down the centuries.

The misogyny inherent in the story is starkly obvious and gives some reason for Cassandra’s failure to convince. However, history shows that truth-speaking prophets of any gender may be ignored by those who should listen, and false prophets may be embraced by those who should know better.

It is important to see the reasons specific to each context, but some general themes recur. For instance, politicians may simply not want to engage with any stories other than their own. And their followers may find solace in the brazen confidence of their leaders’ self-delusions. But a reckoning always comes eventually.

Conspiracies: theories versus practice

Reading Edward Snowden’s well-argued essay about how conspiracy theories remedy a sense of powerlessness but weaken the hearers’ ability to discern real conspiracy practices, these paragraphs struck me:

In democracies today, what is important to an increasing many is not what rights and freedoms are recognized, but what beliefs are respected: what history, or story, undergirds their identities as citizens, and as members of religious, racial, and ethnic communities. It’s this replacement-function of false conspiracies — the way they replace unified or majoritarian histories with parochial and partisan stories — that prepares the stage for political upheaval.

Especially pernicious is the way that false conspiracies absolve their followers of engaging with the truth. Citizenship in a conspiracy-society doesn’t require evaluating a statement of proposed fact for its truth-value, and then accepting it or rejecting it accordingly, so much as it requires the complete and total rejection of all truth-value that comes from an enemy source, and the substitution of an alternative plot, narrated from elsewhere.

Edward Snowden, Belief in conspiracy theories is a symptom of powerlessness, The Guardian

The purpose/s of conspiracy theories

Snowden goes on to describe research that classifies conspiracy theories and tries to develop taxonomies for talking about them. He concludes in the same post that “these are all attempts to chart a new type of politics that is also a new type of identity” and proposes that “conspiracies themselves are a taxonomy, a method by which democracies especially sort themselves into parties and tribes, a typology through which people who lack definite or satisfactory narratives as citizens explain to themselves… their lack of power…”.

As we have seen with the January 6th Capitol Riot and other examples in the USA, UK and around the world, many people go further than simply “explaining” something to themselves via a conspiracy theory. They act, and do damage.

However, millions of citizens also identify with and act on the truths in stories told with integrity. What kinds of stories are those?

My next post considers stories that have Purpose with a capital “P”.

[…] storytelling is a universal human function and therefore mine as much as anyone’s. Then, in True prophetess vs false prophets, I considered how some stories tell urgent truths that are not heard and thus have no power to save […]

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