Narrative Capitals/6 - What matters is to recognise deceitful prophets and storytellers
by Luigino Bruni
published in Avvenire on 17/12/2017
“Poverty is the first virtue to be discovered by all founders, and the first one to be forgotten by their successors."
Carlo Maria Martini, Per amore, per voi, per sempre (“For love, for you, forever” - the tr.)
Ideology is a very common and serious illness in ideal-driven organizations (IDO), and it develops especially during the crisis of narrative capital, when amidst the shortage of true stories to tell the offer of new artificial stories that seem to respond to the hunger for sense and future that is hitting the community becomes very seductive. Ideology is the neurosis of the ideal - just as idolatry is the neurosis of faith. Among the many forms that ideologies take, a particularly frequent and dangerous form is the one suggested by Spanish writer Don Juan Manuel’s novel entitled El Conde Lucanor (Tales of Count Lucanor), which is the medieval source of the fairy tale The Emperor's New Clothes. But, unlike its various modern rewritings, in the original novel we find precious elements to add new words to our discourse on movements and communities that originate from ideals, charismas and motivations that are different and larger than the economic ones.
The story begins with a bizarre deception suffered by a king. Three rogues come to court and promise him special clothes which can only be seen by legitimate children while remaining invisible to those who are illegitimate. The king takes the bait because he believes he has found a good mechanism to prevent the inheritance of someone who would prove to be a non-natural son. So the three cheater tailors get to work. The king, still doubtful, sends two servants to see the first new clothes, without revealing anything about their supposed magical properties to them. The servants see nothing in the spinning mills, but they don't have the courage to contradict the tailors, and they tell the king that they saw wonderful fabrics. Finally, when the king also goes to the tailors to see their work and can’t see anything, first he is upset but then thinks, “If I say I can't see the clothes, everyone will know that I'm not the king's son, and I will lose my kingdom.” So he believes the trick and he too begins to weave his praises of the new garments. Then he sends his governor, who, having heard about the features of those clothes from the king, even though he cannot see anything praises them with even more enthusiastic words, in order not to lose his position. After the governor, the other court officials also do the same. And when the feast day finally arrives and the king, completely naked, rides through the streets of the city on horseback, all the people praise the king's beautiful clothes. The spell is broken by a stableman of the king who says: “My Lord, for me it is the same thing to be the son of my father or another, and for this reason I say to you: either I am blind or you are naked.”
In this type of ideological production, first there are cheating false prophets that seduce the boss - the founder(s) or leader(s) of a community. It is not him to call them, but he receives them, and in doing so he commits the first and decisive mistake. From the cheater false prophets we should defend ourselves first of all by not receiving them at home and by making sure that they do not pass the controls that we normally do before receiving guests. During the storytelling crises, when numerous storytellers are asking to be received, it is essential to choose the "doorkeepers” carefully, that is to say those who welcome visitors, the staff of the executive or bureau secretariat. They play a very important role, because they must have the rare ability to spot false prophets immediately and block them. Because, in crises affecting the deep meaning of the community, those responsible are particularly manipulable by storyteller false prophets, by ideological snake charmers. Many crises are not overcome because the secretariat allows the wrong storytellers to pass through or because it blocks the good ones - or because it does both.
It was not by chance that at the head of the guest quarters of the abbeys and monasteries there were very wise and expert monks and friars: “Moreover, let also a God-fearing brother have assigned to him the apartment of the guests"(Holy Rule of Saint Benedict, chapter LIII). In delicate moments of transition, wise communities must understand which the decisive offices and functions are. These almost never follow the formal order of the organization chart. In a good organization, the morphology of power does not coincide with the morphology of wisdom; and if wiser people are all placed in the senior positions, the others find themselves in the suburbs, which are the places of "weak powers" where the most serious diseases penetrate. Peripheral wisdom is always decisive, but especially when you are surrounded by false storytellers in search of "kings" to enchant. Also because the leaders of spiritual and religious IDO’s who are faced with very delicate crises of stories to tell, essential in order to be able to enchant the present and future members once again, are particularly exposed to the narrative manipulation of false prophets. And the more serious, widespread and profound narrative crisis that one goes through, the easier it is for founders and decision-makers to believe in the fantastic promises of the deceitful storytellers. “Kings" are always very sensitive to the inheritance of their kingdom. They have a vital need to understand who the legitimate children of their "charisma” are. And when, in times of crisis, they can no longer simply recognize them with their gaze, they are extremely vulnerable to those who promise them techniques that replace their eyes - communities are lost when false prophets prevent their founders/leaders from understanding who the authentic followers of their real history are.
Furthermore, it is important to note that in the story the deception could have been discovered immediately if one of the servants whom the (still doubtful) king sent for a first verification of the clothes had the freedom and courage to simply say what he saw, without fearing the costs and punishment for the freedom of his eyes. But it is precisely this kind of brave and free members who are scarce in the "secretariats" and around the founders and leaders. Almost always, in fact, they end up surrounded by "servants” who are very faithful but without the freedom and courage to simply say the things they see. They are even good persons, but they are moved and manipulated by their fear, even when it is disguised as respect or even veneration for their leaders. It is precisely in the first relationship between the servants sent out and the king where ideology is formed and begins to work. It is not enough to deceive the head. Ideology is a relationship, it is a "relational evil” that requires two or more people who begin to believe together in the same illusion and say that they believe in it. Ideology is a false individual belief that succeeds in becoming a collective belief, said loudly and in public - it is not enough to believe in ideologies, in order for them to get established they must also be proclaimed and repeated publicly and reciprocally.
Another, decisive role is played by governors and ministers. These are initially not so much driven by fear (perhaps partly), but by interests. They, too, do not tell the truth, although they know that they are saying a lie - however, quite simply, they have the incentive to lie. At this point the ideological apparatus is already working, and it spreads in the population simply by replicating the same fear and the same interests. In true stories, however, there is a fundamental difference comparing to the story narrated by the fairy tale. In real community affairs there are many people who are able to really see the clothes that do not exist. Ideology can become so powerful that we see a naked king as if he were dressed. And when the proportion of blind people in good faith exceeds that of those who lie (out of fear and interest), the ideological trap becomes (almost) perfect. We lose contact with reality because we can no longer distinguish what we really see from what we see thanks to the ideology. We live, even for a long time, in a false reality that some people - naively and sincerely - can really see and that others - out of interest - say they see knowing that they do not see it. The perfect producer-consumers of ideology are those who believe that the artificial world they see is really the true one - like Truman Show, it is the perfect reality show that every TV would like, where the protagonist lives his false life convinced that it is his real life.
In Juan Manuel's story, there is a servant to break the spell who, says the fairy tale, "had nothing to lose". Having nothing to lose, and perhaps inspired by a little bit of good will for the deceived king, that stableman found himself in the conditions of freedom to be able to simply tell the truth. In the fairy tale the king "cursed that servant" who revealed the truth, but the other fellow citizens of the kingdom one after the other came out of the spell and deception, triggered an opposite chain reaction, and the swindlers fled, betaking themselves to their heels. But why, unlike in fairy tales, does human history show us very few cases of ideal-driven communities that manage to get out of the ideological spell? Those who really saw wonderful clothes thanks to their ideology-influenced eyes don't want to go back to a reality which is true but much less colourful than what they "saw" for a long time and to which they were addicted - in fact, ideology is a form of doping which guarantees exceptional performance and removes the incentive to return to the fatigue and sweat of practice in the uphill roads and of uncertain results. Furthermore, over the years, many of those who initially saw the invisible because of interest have gradually transformed themselves into honest seers, and the share of people who see non-existing things in good faith can become an almost totality. Finally, the very few who have remained conscious of the ideological bluff are also those who are earning most from that collective comedy. Ideology is also very dangerous because once activated it feeds on itself, in different but convergent ways.
However, the happy ending of the fairy tale contains a message of non-vain hope. It is not impossible that - even outside the world of fairy tales - a single person saves everyone. One of the "remnant", a person who saved the freedom of their heart and eyes during the time of illusions. Like Noah. There are certain crucial moments when the ‘critical mass’ is ‘1’. A single person who "has nothing to lose", because, perhaps, they have already given everything, or because they have managed to shield their poverty. The many forms of poverty usually reduce our freedom, but sometimes poverty alone can generate a different freedom that is capable of liberating others. And if we then realise that in our desolate land of these poor people there is not even one left, we can always hope to become that one ourselves.
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