Rebecca Solnit on Rewriting the World’s Broken Stories and the Paradigm-Shifting Power of Calling Things by Their True Names
“To name something truly is to lay bare what may be brutal or corrupt — or important or possible — and key to the work of changing the world is changing the story.”
By Maria Popova
“Finding the words is another step in learning to see,” bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in reflecting on what her Native American tradition and her training as a scientist taught her about how naming confers dignity upon life. If to name is to see and reveal — to remove the veil of blindness, willful or manipulated, and expose things as they really are — then it is in turn another step in remaking the world, another form of resistance to the damaging dominant narratives that go unquestioned. Walt Whitman knew this when he contemplated our greatest civic might: “I can conceive of no better service… than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.”
A century and a half after Whitman, Rebecca Solnit — one of our own era’s boldest public defenders of democracy, and one of the most poetic — explores this crucial causal link between the stories we tell and the world we build in Call Them by Their True Names (public library) — a collection of her essays at the nexus of politics, philosophy, and the selective record of personal and political choices we call history. Composed in response to more than a decade’s worth of cultural crises and triumphs, the pieces in the book furnish an extraordinarily lucid yet hopeful lens on the present and a boldly uncynical telescopic perspective on the future.
Solnit writes in the preface:
One of the folktale archetypes, according to the Aarne-Thompson classification of these stories, tells of how “a mysterious or threatening helper is defeated when the hero or heroine discovers his name.” In the deep past, people knew names had power. Some still do. Calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness. It’s not all there is to changing the world, but it’s a key step.
When the subject is grim, I think of the act of naming as diagnosis. Though not all diagnosed diseases are curable, once you know what you’re facing, you’re far better equipped to know what you can do about it. Research, support, and effective treatment, as well as possibly redefining the disease and what it means, can proceed from this first step. Once you name a disorder, you may be able to connect to the community afflicted with it, or build one. And sometimes what’s diagnosed can be cured.
That, indeed, is what the philosopher and Trappist monk Thomas Merton celebrated in his beautiful fan letter to Rachel Carson after she catalyzed the modern environmental movement by speaking inconvenient truth to power in exposing the truth about pesticides, marketed at the time as harmless helpers to humanity — an act Merton considered “contributing a most valuable and essential piece of evidence for the diagnosis of the ills of our civilization.” Such naming of wrongs, betrayals, and corruptions unweaves the very fabric of the status quo. It is, Solnit argues, “the first step in the process of liberation” and often leads to shifts in the power system itself. In the age of “alternative facts,” when language is used as a weapon of oppression and manipulation, her words reverberate with the irrepressible, unsilenceable urgency of truth:
To name something truly is to lay bare what may be brutal or corrupt — or important or possible — and key to the work of changing the world is changing the story.
More than a century after Nietzsche contemplated truth, lies, and the power of language to both conceal and reveal reality, Solnit writes:
There are so many ways to tell a lie. You can lie by ignoring whole regions of impact, omitting crucial information, or unhitching cause and effect; by falsifying information by distortion and disproportion, or by using names that are euphemisms for violence or slander for legitimate activities, so that the white kids are “hanging out” but the Black kids are “loitering” or “lurking.” Language can erase, distort, point in the wrong direction, throw out decoys and distractions. It can bury the bodies or uncover them.
What, then, can we do as namers and storytellers, as part of the truth-telling brigade that stands as warden of reality? Solnit offers:
Precision, accuracy, and clarity matter, as gestures of respect toward those to whom you speak; toward the subject, whether it’s an individual or the earth itself; and toward the historical record. It’s also a kind of self-respect… The search for meaning is in how you live your life but also in how you describe it and what else is around you.
The precision and respect of our words add up to the precision and respect of our stories — something Virginia Woolf implicitly recognized when she asserted that “words belong to each other” in the only surviving recording of her voice. When James Baldwin insisted that “we made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over,” he did so with an eye to storytelling as worldbuilding. Solnit addresses this — the remaking of stories as a remodeling of the world — in another piece in the book, exploring the responsibility of those tasked with telling the world’s truths: the writers, journalists, and storytellers whose words shape our understanding of reality. She writes:
Stories surround us like air; we breathe them in, we breathe them out. The art of being fully conscious in personal life means seeing the stories and becoming their teller, rather than letting them be the unseen forces that tell you what to do. Being a public storyteller requires the same skills with larger consequences and responsibilities, because your story becomes part of that water, undermining or reinforcing the existing stories. Your job is to report on the story on the surface, the contained story, the one that happened yesterday. It’s also to see and sometimes to break open or break apart the ambient stories, the stories that are already written, and to understand the relationship between the two.
In a testament to the crucial importance — and difficulty — of breaking out of our presentism bias and taking a telescopic perspective of the past, she adds:
There are stories beneath the stories and around the stories. The recent event on the surface is often merely the hood ornament on the mighty social engine that is a story driving the culture. We call those “dominant narratives” or “paradigms” or “memes” or “metaphors we live by” or “frameworks.” However we describe them, they are immensely powerful forces. And the dominant culture mostly goes about reinforcing the stories that are the pillars propping it up and that, too often, are also the bars of someone else’s cage. They are too often stories that should be broken, or are already broken and ruined and ruinous and way past their expiration date. They sit atop mountains of unexamined assumptions.
Part of the job of a great storyteller is to examine the stories that underlie the story you’re assigned, maybe to make them visible, and sometimes to break us free of them. Break the story. Breaking is a creative act as much as making, in this kind of writing.
In a sense, what Solnit is advocating for is the opposite of revisionist history — the opposite of the convenient erasure of wrongdoings and betrayals over which the lulling stories of the status quo are written. I think of it as revisionist future — the act of courage and creativity required for changing the terrain of reality by imagining alternative landscapes and new pathways of possibility. “We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice,” Ursula K. Le Guin observed in her poignant reflection on how imaginative storytelling expands the scope of the possible. “We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom.”
But the most powerful and transformative imagination, Solnit reminds us, is the informed imagination:
The writer’s job is not to look through the window someone else built, but to step outside, to question the framework, or to dismantle the house and free what’s inside, all in service of making visible what was locked out of the view. News journalism focuses on what changed yesterday rather than asking what are the underlying forces and who are the unseen beneficiaries of this moment’s status quo… This is why you need to know your history, even if you’re a journalist rather than a historian. You need to know the patterns to see how people are fitting the jumble of facts into what they already have: selecting, misreading, distorting, excluding, embroidering, distributing empathy here but not there, remembering this echo or forgetting that precedent.
Some of the stories we need to break are not exceptional events, they’re the ugly wallpaper of our everyday lives. For example, there’s a widespread belief that women lie about being raped, not a few women, not an anomalous woman, but women in general. This framework comes from the assumption that reliability and credibility are as natural to men as mendacity and vindictiveness are to women. In other words, feminists just made it all up, because otherwise we’d have to question a really big story whose nickname is patriarchy. But the data confirms that people who come forward about being raped are, overall, telling the truth (and that rapists tend to lie, a lot). Many people have gotten on board with the data, many have not, and so behind every report on a sexual assault is a battle over the terms in which we tell, in what we believe about gender and violence.
She considers the only antidote to these age-old stories:
Journalists are the story-breakers whose work often changes the belief systems that then drive legislative and institutional change. It’s powerful, honorable, profoundly necessary work when it’s done with passion and independence and guts.
Building on her previous history-informed insistence that “the grounds for hope are in the shadows, in the people who are inventing the world while no one looks, who themselves don’t know yet whether they will have any effect,” she highlights our warped weighing of which stories matter. Exactly half a century after Hannah Arendt — another of our civilization’s great political minds — considered the power of outsiderdom and asserted that “we humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human,” Solnit writes:
We tend to treat people on the fringe as ideologues and those in the center as neutral, as though the decision not to own a car is political and the decision to own one is not, as though to support a war is neutral and to oppose it is not. There is no apolitical, no sidelines, no neutral ground; we’re all engaged.
I think of the mainstream media as having not so much a rightwing or leftwing bias but a status quo bias, a tendency to believe people in authority, to trust institutions and corporations and the rich and powerful and pretty much any self-satisfied white man in a suit; to let people who have been proven to tell lies tell more lies that get reported without questioning; to move forward on cultural assumptions that are readily disproven; and to devalue nearly all outsiders, whether they’re discredited or mocked or just ignored.
Solnit turns to the largest-scale cultural assumption, erected by our civilization’s most unforgiving institutional, corporate, and political power structures — the selfsame assumption Carson had begun to dismantle half a century earlier — from which arises our largest-scale truth-telling responsibility:
For journalists and for human beings generally, the elephant in the room has been there for a long time. It’s not even the elephant: the elephant in the room is the room itself, the biosphere in which all life currently known to exist in the universe is enclosed, and on which it all depends, the biosphere now devastated by climate change, with far more change to come. The scale is not like anything human beings have faced and journalists have reported on, except perhaps the threat of all-out nuclear war — and that was something that might happen, not something that is happening. Climate change is here, and it is changing everything. It is bigger than anything else, because it is everything, for the imaginable future.
Future generations are going to curse most of us for distracting ourselves with trivialities as the planet burned. Journalists are in a pivotal place when it comes to the possibilities and the responsibilities in this crisis. We, the makers and breakers of stories, are tremendously powerful.
So please, break the story.
Complement this particular portion of Call Them by Their True Names — a super read in its rousing and revelatory totality — with Iris Murdoch on why storytelling is essential for democracy, Ursula K. Le Guin on the power of language to transform and redeem, and Susan Sontag on storytelling and what it means to be a decent human being, then revisit Solnit on breaking silence, living with intelligent hope in dispiriting times, catastrophe as a catalyst for human goodness, the rewards of walking, how maps can oppress and liberate, and why we read.