The first time I picked up The Heretics by Will Storr I got about 25 pages into it — not even past the introduction — before I had to put it down because I got so angry.
Storr was writing about his visits to people who think the Earth is flat, who believe homeopathy can cure cancer, who think they’ve been abducted by aliens. Climate change deniers and antivaxxers and Moon landingthis deniers and those who think they suffer from morgellon’s disease, in which fibres burrow under their skin, causing unbearable itching.
I got angry because my initial reaction was, “How can people believe this stuff? How can they be so stupid? They must be dumb. I’m not going to read this nonsense that sympathises with them.”
But I missed the point.
I came back to the book a couple of weeks later, when my anger had abated, with a different attitude. Instead of coming to it with a “these people are idiots” attitude, I came back with curiosity: what would lead someone to believe something that is demonstrably false? That is literally, in some cases, life-threatening? Are they stupid?
The answer, I found, was “no”. They’re not stupid, at all. And Storr hadn’t written his book to sympathise with them or to persuade anyone they were correct; as far as I know, he’s a sceptic and believer in the scientific method.
Storr wrote his book because he wanted to learn more about them. He wanted to get inside their heads, see things from their point of view, and understand why they believe the things they believe.
He wrote The Heretics not because he wanted to poke fun at these people or shame them or be right, but because he was curious.
And when I read it from a position of curiosity, I learned a whole load about belief, and identity, and persuasion. He changed my point of view — from assuming these people were crazy or stupid, he showed me a different way to see the world. He showed me how they see the world, and I now begin to understand why they believe what they believe.
This is the power of a story, of a book — fiction or nonfiction. In an increasingly divided world where there’s no time or space for nuance, it can feel impossible to bridge those divides, to find a place where we can meet people we profoundly disagree with and say, “I see you.” Conversations get heated and emotions can get in the way, and I completely understand why.
When one person is telling another person, “I don’t think you deserve the same rights as me” it can feel impossible to see them as anything other than filled with hate. But nobody is only one thing. We are all nuanced. Books and stories are so powerful because they show us another worldview with a little time and space between us, so we get to see where someone else is coming from without all the anger and hurt getting in the way.
Even writing this is scary because I know there will be people out there who think anyone who denies someone else’s humanity is simply evil and should be cancelled, blocked, deleted, wiped out, and I get it. My first reaction is to go there too. But there’s no space in that reaction to heal anything or build bridges or change minds and hearts. We only push each other further away.
But if we write our stories, and simply offer them up as a gift, we give people who disagree with us a chance to see us and our experiences and see things another way.
Don’t write to be right. Write to show people a different way of seeing something. This is how we change the world.