In his popular TED talk, “What Explains the Rise of Humans,” Yuval Harari, a historian at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, argues that our facility with the imaginary – the fictional – gives us a unique nimbleness in how we organize and cooperate with each other.
Animals sometimes cooperate with each other – but only with those they know personally or within the prescribed behaviors of social insects such as bees.
By contrast, humans can cooperate with unknown individuals over vast distances and for a multitude of purposes – all because we can imagine the unreal.
“We humans control the world because we live in a dual reality,” Harari says. “All other animals live in an objective reality. Their reality consists of objective entities, like rivers and trees and lions and elephants.
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“We humans, we also live in an objective reality.
“In our world, too, there are rivers and trees and lions and elephants.
“But over the centuries, we have constructed on top of this objective reality a second layer of fictional reality, a reality made of fictional entities like nations, like gods, like money, like corporations.
“And what is amazing is that as history unfolded, this fictional reality became more and more powerful so that today, the most powerful forces in the world are those fictional realities.”
Although the word “fiction” has the connotation of “untrue,” Harari means something else. “Fictions” are abstractions that groups of people agree on and which drive their behavior.
In this sense, countries are just as fictional as any other idea – a monetary system, for example, or human rights. Even our most cherished beliefs are just that – human constructs that may or may not be shared with others. They are not real in the way that the physical world is real.
Truth in fiction
They are, however, real in the way that literary fiction is real, informing and teaching us what it is to be human and holding up models of behavior, for good or ill.
It’s an interesting notion in this particular election season rife with dog whistles and astroturf activism. We don’t behave as if political issues are imaginary constructs.
Indeed, the passion of a polarized electorate reflects our conviction that our beliefs are grounded in reality while the opposition is sadly misled.
According to Harari, however, no one’s fictional world – no religion, no nation, no commitment to political ideology, no set of values – is more objectively real than anyone else’s.
Most of the time our twin abilities to imagine and organize are to our benefit, but not always. Harari points out that concentration camps were the result of fictions put in motion by true believers. In the current climate of hate-filled speech in the public arena, we need to be mindful that we are conjuring up not just words but a fictional reality that determines how we act.
There’s also a hopeful side to Harari’s view. Recognizing the role of fiction in our lives lets us sidestep the traditional impasse of absolute and relative morality, for example, to find common ground on issues that currently tangle us in useless posturing.
It gives us a way forward when deciding how to govern ourselves and where to put our resources.
If we can imagine something – a civil debate, a world without poverty, a commitment to the common good – that’s just as possible as the fictional world we already inhabit.
Kay McSpadden is a high school English teacher in York, S.C. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.