Margaret Atwood on storytelling as a tool of tyrants

Long before Putin convinced Russians he needed to liberate Ukraine of Nazis, author Margaret Atwood was observing how the powerful used stories as a tool to oppress.

20 Oct 2023
Written by
The Story
Art & Science
Reading time
3 min

Image: New York Times

This article was published back in 2022, a few days before Russia's invasion of Ukraine and 18 months after the January 6 riots in Washington, D.C. Two years later, with right-wing populism surging globally and nearly half the world heading to the polls, Atwood's remarks on the power of narratives remain just as vital.

“A very good rule of thumb is that whatever Margaret Atwood is worried about now, that’s what the rest of us are going to be worrying about a decade from now.”

So proclaims Ezra Klein in the opening to his wide-ranging discussion with author Margaret Atwood on his podcast The Ezra Klein Show. And it’s hard to disagree.

The mind behind The Handmaid's Tale and more than 70 other novels is, as you might expect from that incredible prolificacy, a keen observer of the world and its events. That deep interest in history, politics and the human condition allowed Atwood to develop such a compelling and prescient book-length answer to the question, “If America were to have a totalitarian government, what kind would it be?”.

Recorded on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the interview is compulsory listening for anyone wondering how Putin has used narrative to maintain domestic support for an increasingly disastrous invasion and, more generally, how other tyrants throughout history have shaped language and stories to manipulate their people.

The episode is worth a listen in its entirety, but here are our favourite pearls of wisdom to get you started.

Why humans evolved to think in stories

“Once we had a language that included a past and a present and the future, once we could think about what had happened and transfer information to people about what might therefore happen, we were going to be telling stories.

“If you go way back, the stories that start being told are partly about how to do stuff, like how to hunt the gazelle, and precautions that you might take around that. The reason [stories] persisted… was to teach people so they didn’t have to do it by trial and error. So Uncle Alf got eaten by a crocodile right there—maybe better not go swimming there. So you don’t have to try for yourself to see if there might be a crocodile there. I’m telling you the story, and it didn’t end well, so don’t do that."

Want to get good people to do bad things? Appeal to their sense of virtue

“I think most people want to be good. And they want to help. And so a really conniving person will pitch to that side of us, rather than saying just, let’s rob a bank and make a million dollars. I think you would say no to the bank robbery… because it’s not helpful. [But] you might say yes to it if we said, ‘let’s rob a bank and use the million dollars to help humankind and advance equality’.”

On how totalitarianism begins

“You never begin by saying, ‘I’m going to be a tyrannist dictator, and I’m going to ruin your life’. You don’t start out that way. You start out by saying, ‘I’m going to make things so much better’. And you [say to your people], ‘You want that to happen, don’t you… because you’re a good person. But first, we have to get rid of those [other] people because they’re not good people.’”

On our capacity for skilful deception

“You can make up really destructive things and use them in an instigated and malicious way for your own ends. And that’s the other thing that we really know about stories, and going back as far as we can with the written record… those are the kinds of stories we find.

“So we are a species that deceives. Other species deceive, too. But we do it more elaborately, and we do it with stories. Other animals go in for camouflage and deception, but we were able to go in for camouflage and deception using words. And we can, for instance, make up false stories about our enemies to get other people to dislike them and turn against them. And if you go into the history of propaganda in wartime, you will find a lot of clever inventions about stuff that wasn’t true, done for the purposes of deceiving.”

On the nation-building power of stories

“In order to hold any sort of nation state together, there has to be a story that most of the people agree on. And every once in a while, those stories fall apart. And if they’re not replaced with another one, fragmentation is the result. So one of the things that stories do is they give members of a group a kind of unifying, imaginary thing that they can believe in.

“When I say imaginary, I’m not saying it’s necessarily false. I’m saying it is the thing of the imagination, like money… It’s a human thing that we make up because it works, and it’s convenient for us.”

Listen to the full episode of The Ezra Klein Show at The New York Times.

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