John Stokvis

July 30, 2021


The first note I always got in my college playwrighting class was “where’s the conflict?”

This makes sense for stories. Stories without conflict lack tension, they don't build to anything, there's no mystery. There's a word for stories with no conflict: "boring." 

Stories are useful for communication, so it's makes sense that news reporters would use storytelling devices to communicate what they're reporting on. But there's a downside.

Conflict is important part, but only a part, of all that we experience. And at least in theory the news is describing the whole of the human experience.

Things with no inherent conflict happen all the time: people got together to do something good or something tragic happened but it wasn't any one person's fault. If conflict is the key ingredient to good storytelling, what happens to the news that doesn't have inherent conflict? 

Generally one of two things:
  1. The conflict gets added - someone is cast as the hero and someone else is cast as the villain. 
  2. The news is ignored - fewer people will pay attention to it if it doesn't tap into our innate sense of story. Less attention, means fewer clicks, means less advertising money (or fewer subscribers).

The end result might sound familiar.

If we get our primary understanding of the world through news media (as pretty much everyone does these days), the general impression is that everyone is fighting. There are (only) good people and bad people and they completely disagree on everything and are locked in a struggle for "victory." 

Some people intentionally generate conflict because they know it will attract attention from news media (again, more attention means more clicks means more money). They know news media will be attracted to them because there's no need to cast someone as a villain if they've already cast themselves as one. There's a word for this too: "trolling."

So what's the problem with trolling? It's just someone cynically throwing foam stones at a glass house. It's harmless attention grabbing. Right?

Well if the troll complains about how broken the system is, eventually people will want to put the troll in charge of the system to fix it. But what happens when the clown becomes the king?

The difficulty for the clown is that once truth and seriousness have been merrily shattered, they cannot be put back together and served up anew. Or, to put it another way, the buffoon who has just entertained the audience by smashing all the plates cannot now say that he proposes to use them to serve up a banquet in honour of himself becoming a wise and honest king. Everyone can see: the plates are all in pieces on the floor. 

So what's the way out? It's tempting to point a finger at a source of the problem: the media, the trolls, ourselves. But that's just more villain-casting, more storytelling, more conflict. 

Maybe there isn’t actually conflict but agreement. Maybe there is conflict, but it's multi-sided and framing it as two-sided is easier but drowns out more nuanced perspectives.

The "should we open up or lockdown" around COVID is a prime example of this. It takes working against the inclination towards conflict to see those other perspectives. As Josh Marshall pointed out (bold is mine):

Jeremy Konyndyk, a former Obama administration official involved in the US ebola response and other international aid efforts, suggests this analogy. Your house is on fire. You can shut the windows to deprive the fire of oxygen. That will slow it down. But eventually you’ll suffocate. We’ve now got a public debate which amounts to whether to be incinerated or suffocate. What we need is the fire brigade to show up and hose down the house. The fire brigade, as Konyndyk explains, is a system of widespread testing, contact tracing, isolation for the infected and beefed up hospital capacity to make an interim new normal possible.

The trick is to avoid getting caught up in conflict is to see the story and look beyond it. Stories are our water. The first step is seeing the water.