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Truth, alone, is not sufficient

This is a transcript of a New Member’s Speech, which I delivered at The Society’s Burns Supper in Edinburgh, 29 January 2017.

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.

When David invited me to deliver the New Member’s Speech, I asked him for some advice about content. I asked whether I should speak to current affairs, or limit it to the Society, or to the immortal bard, or perhaps to science, which I quite enjoy.

David’s reply was devastating and entirely unhelpful, even though it was couched in kind terms. “It need not be lengthy,” he wrote.

This, despite hearing me speak before. Or perhaps, because of hearing me speak before.

So I understand that to be an instruction to “keep it brief”

I have decided to follow David’s advice. Thank you very much. Good night!

Well, in truth, I will keep it short, but I will address all of those topics, looking for something that ties together:

  • Scotland’s national poet
  • Recent political events, here and abroad
  • Societies such as this one, tribes, and nations

There is something that does that binding, and the story starts many years ago, where man evolved on the savannas of Africa. Then, we lived in tiny communities of people — probably no more than 120 people.

Anthropologists, sociologists and other scientists are asking how mankind managed to cross this critical threshold, and create modern cities, and nations of millions of people.

After all, if you put a million monkeys together, you don’t get something pleasant emerging.

The answer, at least according to Yuval Harari, appears to be fiction. With fiction, “large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.”

Two examples serve:

  • Churches are grounded in common religious myths. Two Mormons who have never met could join together on a conversion, or a charity, because they both believe in the same mythical god, in the same narratives (more or less).
  • States and nations are grounded in common myths too. Two Nigerians who have never met could join each other on the battlefield to defend their country and flag. That feeling is based on the shared understanding of what their country is, and who they are in relation to that country.

Lines drawn on a map, do not create a country. As history has shown many times, those lines are often drawn in the wrong place — because it’s the people and their shared myths that create the country. Those shared stories, the shared narratives — are what shape cultures.

So where does this leave us? How does this end? When does this speech end?

Just a few days ago, I marched down Market Street in San Francisco, with millions across the world, surrounded by women and men who had come together around a shared story. That was the story of women’s rights, human rights.

It was a heartening experience, but it also a disquieting one — because that story was based on another, less pleasant story, created by the newly elected Trump.

This serves to remind us that, like evolution, stories are indifferent. The stories we tell each other are powerful engines — they can move millions of people to do good, or to do bad.

The rise of nationalism across Europe, the persistence of superstition and religion, the rise of “alternative facts” (the pillars of alternative stories), and recent events all around the world, show that only reporting facts is not enough.

Truth, alone, is not sufficient.

What we need, in addition to those truths, is more narrative .

What we need are more people telling the good stories, and telling them well.

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to propose a toast: to Robert Burns, to The Society, and to all the good storytellers of the world.