#2. You Were Raised -- and Educated -- by Pop Culture
Quick quiz: If you get arrested by the cops, how many phone calls are you legally allowed?
One, right? "I want my one phone call" -- somewhere there's a suspect saying that exact phrase to his arresting officer. He may even insist that it's in the Constitution.
And this is when the cop has to explain that it's an urban legend, and that he'd already know that if he read Cracked. This criminal, and you, only believe the "one phone call" rule because you saw it in movies and cop shows.
In fact, pretty much everything you know about the criminal justice system came from actors on a glowing rectangular screen. Have you ever been called for jury duty? Did you sit through the morning training session where they have to carefully explain that real trials are not like TV shows?
That's why movies are so effective at shaping your personality: because you subconsciously assumed that large parts of these fictional stories weren't fiction. Sure, you knew True Lies was a silly Schwarzenegger action movie, and you knew that, in real life, nobody could really ramp a dirt bike off a Washington, DC, skyscraper. But you didn't know that the city doesn't even have skyscrapers at all. Even though the movie was fiction, you didn't doubt that part, because you had no reason to.
No, seriously, that's DC's flatass skyline. You can't ramp shit there.
Now take this one step further, and think about how many other aspects of your life you've only experienced via Hollywood. If you're from a rural area, how do you know what it's like to live in the city? Or vice versa? If you've never been to Paris, where does your mental image of it come from? Some of you reading this very article loved The Sopranos because its depiction of the mob was so much more "realistic" than all those stylized movies that came before it. How do you know it's more realistic? What are you comparing it to? All those real mobsters who come over at Thanksgiving?
The reality is that vast piles of facts that you have crammed into your brain basement were picked up from pop culture, and for the most part, you don't realize that's where the information came from. This is called source amnesia, and I've talked about it before -- you know that giraffes sleep standing up, but you've long forgotten whether you heard that fact in school or in a tour at the zoo, or saw it in a cartoon. Either way, you will treat that fact as true until something comes along to counter it -- this is the entire reason MythBusters is still on the air.
And why they have become rich by telling people shit that seems to require just basic common sense.
OK, so who cares if gas tanks don't really explode when you shoot them? So what if a lot of your interesting party trivia isn't accurate?
What, you don't think this same principle goes for the important stuff?
When you went on your first date, you had a picture in your mind of what that should look like -- how both of you should behave, what type of activities couples do together, which one of you should pay, etc. Where did that picture come from? Did you take a dating class in elementary school? Did your parents sit you down and tell you? Bullshit. You saw it in a TV show, or a cartoon, a solid decade before you were even old enough to drive.
"One day, I'll meet the right grotesquely muscled deliveryman and settle down to a life of kissing on top of washing machines."
If your parents were poor, where did you get your idea of how rich people live? Where did you get your concept of what success looks like -- how successful people dress, or what they drive, or how they decorate their apartment? Hollywood, Hollywood, Hollywood -- the only reason you've heard of Armani suits is because the 1980 movie American Gigolo launched the brand. The reason you think smoking is cool is because you've seen a thousand handsome, smooth leading men smoke cigarettes.
"Not me. My friends and I all dress and think alike out of sheer coincidence."
In other words, fictional stories shaped your entire world. You will instinctively reject this idea because you hate the thought that anyone but you has made you who you are. But every single point of data will prove you wrong.
"Bullshit! I just watch movies and TV shows for fun! It's escapism, it lets me turn off my brain and relax while things explode behind Samuel L. Jackson!"
Right, but why does that relax you? Why have you been trained to feel a release of stress when you see a bad guy explode? Why do you prefer that world over your own?
Let me put it another way. "Escapism" and "fantasy" are fun because they let us leave this boring old world and go to a world that we would prefer to live in. And we are defined as a people by those fantasies -- after all, we will spend our whole lives trying to make the real world look like the fantasy. Science fiction came first, space travel came later.
Of course, their original thoughts on the matter were pretty stupid, but you get the point.
Mythology still drives us, and defines us. Now stop and ask yourself who we've entrusted to write it for us.
Which brings us to the heart of this whole matter ...
#1. Everything in Your Brain Is a Story
Let me ask you this:
Why was it so easy to rally Americans around the idea of winning World War II, to the point that we were willing to ration and sacrifice and send an entire generation off to war, when it's so hard to get us worked up about other things like curing cancer or fixing global warming?
I'll come back to it in a moment.
So, knowing the history of stories and all that stuff I talked about above, it makes sense that our brains are built to try to process everything we see as a story. We want all of our information packaged this way -- it's the way data has been fed to us for the last thousand generations, it's how you've been absorbing it since the first time your parents read you a bedtime story. And every story needs to have two elements: a defined set of good guys and bad guys, and a neat structure with a beginning, middle and end.
"Can anyone tell me why they were telling the man to squeal like a pig? Anyone?"
The fact that we need everything fed to us like this, and have trouble getting interested in a situation without it, actually makes solving some problems almost impossible.
For instance, the answer to my question above is that we cared about World War II because it was a story: it had villains (Hitler and the rest), it had heroes (the Allies), it had a distinct beginning, middle and end. Cancer doesn't have any of that -- there's no one guy we can blame for cancer, and "winning the war" against it is actually a series of tiny incremental advancements that may never result in "victory." Global warming is even worse, because there it looks like the villain is us.
So as a society, our entire process for figuring out and solving problems involves clumsily trying to make a story out of them. When we follow a complicated subject like politics, we need that distinct hero and villain, so we'll ignore the shortcomings of our guy and amplify the shittiness of their guy, to make them fit that mold. When we hear about a war, it's almost impossible to think of it in terms of multiple factions all acting in self-interest -- we need one side we can root for, usually under the guise of the underdog young rebels overthrowing the evil old empire (i.e., the Arab Spring).
"Look, all I want to know is which side is Han Solo."
Likewise, we lose interest if our news story doesn't have a clear beginning, middle and end (in the biz they call this the "narrative bias"). Are American troops still in Afghanistan? How is that going? Do you even know? When's the last time you checked? We were all on board for the first act of the story (the 9/11 attacks) and the second act (the military goes in and deposes the Taliban), but then the third act (the troops come home to victory parades and everything is back to normal) never came. So, we just kind of forgot about it.
Now here's the key: This innate urge to shoehorn every single piece of information into a story format is very well known to the people who run political campaigns, or write advertisements, or cover news stories. So, when there is a crisis, they know you need a bad guy. No problem can simply be the result of a flawed system or a bunch of factors that are nobody's fault (or, God forbid, the result of anything we did -- we're just the audience!). No, there has to be a villain we can pin it on.
Tim Jorgenson of Grand Rapids, Michigan -- we're coming for you.
That's why, to this day, we're still trying to figure out who "caused" the economic collapse, as if we'll find a cabal of a dozen shady bankers in a room who made off with all our money, rather than a flawed system that millions of investors and consumers drove into the ditch because of a steadfast refusal to think five minutes into the future. Look at the last few wars again -- we can't get past the idea that terrorism will end if we just blow the shit out of the bad guys. Why? Because that's the way it works in the movies. In Star Wars, when the Emperor died, all evil died with him. The same with Sauron, and Voldemort. If we kill/imprison all the drug kingpins, the drugs will go away. Right? Guys?
You can find this in your personal life, too. If something goes wrong at the office, somebody has to get blamed. Everyone goes into ass-covering mode, because they know the bosses will need a villain in their story. When you take on some personal project (a new job, losing weight, whatever), you expect the same three-act structure that you'd see in a movie (see problem, take it on, experience your darkest moment, eventually triumph), and you get depressed when it doesn't happen (that "triumph" part often never shows up). Why are people always so obsessed with the apocalypse? Because every story has an ending, and the idea that the human "story" can just drag on forever, aimlessly, never progressing toward any particular goal, is just unimaginable. We can't process it.
The reality is, it will probably still look like this, long after we've been exterminated by the robots we designed to protect us.
And our expectations of what these real world stories look like, and how they should play out, are programmed into us by pop culture.
So, yes, for the fucking love of God, movies matter. TV shows matter. Novels matter. They shape the lens through which you see the world. The very fact that you don't think they matter, that even right now you're still resisting the idea, is what makes all of this so dangerous to you -- you watch movies so you can turn off your brain and let your guard down. But while your guard is down, you're letting them jack directly into that part of your brain that creates your mythology. If you think about it, it's an awesome responsibility on the part of the storyteller. And you're comfortable handing that responsibility over to Michael Bay.
It's just something to keep in mind, that's all.
David Wong is the Executive Editor of Cracked.com and a NYT bestselling author, his long-awaited new novel is about cybernetic criminals and other futuristic shit like that. Pre-order it at Amazon, B&N, BAM!, Indiebound, iTunes, or Powell's. You can read the first seven chapters for free by clicking below:
For more Wong, check out 5 Ways to Spot a Bullshit Political Story in Under 10 Seconds and 6 Things Rich People Need to Stop Saying.