How does our sense of story control our behavior? Try these out, but remember--I'm not saying either of these is "real," or suggesting that this is actually going to happen, to you or to anyone. We're just looking at how you would react were this real.
Scenario 1: Dissident Marijuana. You're home one evening when a knock comes at the door. When you answer, several policemen burst in, holding guns on you. You drop your iced tea in shock as you are informed that the police have reason to believe that you may be harboring computers which include evidence of your IP address being associated with websites which disseminate dissident propaganda. A pudgy officer with a giant mustache and eerily serious eyes shines his flashlight in your face, even though the lights are already on; you wince and look away. Men stomp around your place, picking up electronics and books and studying everything.
A little old man in a suit, who seems to have some kind of authority over the officers, approaches you. He tells you that there is also potential evidence that there may be marijuana in your home, and that because of recent black legislation regarding drug smuggling and random shootings, he is authorized to transport you to an extrajudicial location for a security panel to review your case and ensure that you are not behind a series of murders in a nearby community. When he sees how scared you look, he promises that you will be cleared if you have done nothing wrong, and that this is really just a routine inquiry. He turns his back and informs the officers that you need to be swiftly moved. Out he walks.
Amazed, you jabber about your rights. This is insane. You've got nothing illegal in your house; you may have visited a few websites, but everyone does that, and this is so unconstitutional it has to be obvious even in 2014 that this is wrong. This is going to be national news. You demand to call a lawyer. The cops murmur that you'll get your call once you're in detention facilities, and march you out to a cruiser to be driven away. Thinking about how much money the city is going to pay you when you sue over this insane raid, you try to calm yourself down.
Scenario 2: Saved by the Cross. You're home one evening when a knock comes at the door. When you answer, several men in brown robes burst in, holding guns on you. You drop your iced tea in shock as you are informed that the Redeemer's Squad has reason to believe that you may be harboring computers which include evidence of your IP address being associated with websites which disseminate Satanist propaganda. A man with several missing teeth and eerily serious eyes shines his flashlight in your face, even though the lights are already on; you wince and look away. Men stomp around your place, picking up electronics and books and studying everything.
A little old man in a robe of pure white, who seems to have some kind of authority over the others, approaches you. He tells you that there is also potential evidence that there may be marijuana in your home, and that because the devil's pencil shavings drive men mad, he is authorized to transport you to the local Redeemer Squad's chapter house for the high priests to review your case and ensure that you are not behind a series of murders in a nearby community. When he sees how scared you look, he promises that you will be cleared if you have done nothing wrong, and that this is really just a routine inquiry. He turns his back and informs the brown-robed men that you need to be swiftly moved.
Seeing your opening, you jump him. Grabbing the old man around the neck, you pull him toward the kitchen. Your hand fumbles past the fruit bowl, knocking old oranges on the floor; you get to the knife block just in time to pull out a carving knife and press it to the man's throat. "Back the fuck off!" you scream at the nearest acolyte, who was raising his gun. Wildly, you twist the old man's body between you and the gun. More guns come up. Stumbling farther into the kitchen, you struggle to keep the old man moving so that no one risks a shot.
You clutch the old man hard against you with your knife-hand as your spare hand reaches for the cell charger. There. Picking up the phone with your eyes still on the surrounding gunmen, you mash buttons until the "Call" triggers the most recent call. As soon as your friend answers, you scream, "Home invasion, home invasion, help! Call 911, call someone, oh my God, there are guys with guns in here!"
In either case, your space was invaded by a team of armed, insane wackos. You were threatened by overwhelming force. You were reassured that proceedings were in place to address issues like yours, and that the truth would out itself during these proceedings. Both groups of madmen had hundreds of years of human history, tradition, and cultural support to back them up.
And yet, you never even considered resisting the first group. Why?
Let's change the stories around a little bit--say the second scenario occurred in a time period a few years forward, after World War III has left the world a radioactive wasteland, and the new dominant power was the Redeemer Squad. Would you still resist? Probably. And why? Because you know that those Saved By The Cross freaks are truly insane, right? They are thieves, murderers, and liars of the highest order.
And yet--and yet, if you've figured out the nature of Now 2014, why wouldn't you resist the other madmen, even if it meant death? Sure, you know the Redeemer Squad is going to bring you down before SWAT shows up--those crazy guys will overwhelm you, and you can't keep them back even by threatening the one guy in the white robes. But you resist because your home and your life have been attacked by crazy people. Something is holding you back in the other case. These aren't "real" stories, but to plenty of people, across human history and now, these are real stories. Cops do kick in doors and drag "third strikers" off to jail for 25 to life, getting raped and beaten and dumped in solitary purehell for days of (literally) mind-shattering, self-ending torture, yet, we don't resist. If an armed man pulls us over and searches our car for signs of the devil's weed, we comply rather than hitting the gas and trying to escape the wacko, even if we are members of a legalization committee who have spent decades writing about the health benefits of cannabis and the for-profit pharmaceutical screed that uses that far more dangerous Prozac, to name just one out of thousands of drugs, to simultaneously pollute the planet while altering behavior and destroying human brains.
That something--that all-powerful something that governs our behavior in those situations, is our sense of story. Our imagination; our belief in possibility; our sense of internal dignity, deciding when we will resist the insane habits of the alien planet on which we find ourselves, even if it means death, or when we will hang our heads and allow ourselves to be peacefully integrated into the prison-death system, which our own kind has spent so many years improving. We resist some wackos, and accept others, not because of our sense of moral right and wrong (because we know the NSA is as insane as the Redeemer's Squad), or even because of our sense of self-preservation (because we have a better chance of surviving, actually, by faking a conversion to the Redeemer's Squad, than we do once we're hooded in a subcontracted Turkish prison), but because of this uncanny sense of "plot" we have.
If you were gay, and got married, and if a cop showed up to arrest you because the state legislature had just passed legislation making what you did a misdemeanor, and you had to go to the station and pay a fine, you would go along. You would be pissed, yes. You might cross your arms and refuse, and make him cuff you. But you would go.
But if a priest showed up and told you that God had decreed your marriage to be wrong, and that you had to come with him to confess, you would not go. You would throw punches, even if the priest was bigger and stronger. You would scream and claw and kick and fight the hell back. Even though both of those people were equally insane.
There's a power dynamic there, to be sure. An expectation that fighting the police gets you nowhere. But no, power is not the controlling variable here. Remember what I said earlier, about the different version of Scenario 2? If it's the post-nuclear wasteland, it's The Handmaid's Tale, and the Redeemer's Squad is the government, you still fight. You fight because you recognize their insanity, and the futility of living under their dictates, in a way that transcends what you're able to perceive about our government now 2014.
Ironically, weirdly, terribly, there is this mental block so many of us have at the thought of seeing things As They Are, As They Happen, such that we still feel a different kind of shiver at the thought of the robed wackos breaking into our house, versus the uniformed wackos doing the exact same thing. That block is built by the storymasters. Our battles with Simon & Schuster and friends, with Hollywood, and with the empty dreams that fill our night sky, will always be more important than the material ones that can only come afterward.