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Simple Parables in a Complex Age: The Boy Who Cried Wolf

There are numerous parables written centuries ago which have withstood the test of time. We continue to share these parables with our children because they convey complex truths in simple and direct ways. Newer creative works continue to borrow from these tales because the moral lessons are timeless and universal. Although our societies have evolved to be much more layered and complex, humans, essentially, have not. We are not that different from the days of the Panchatantra stories of India or Aesop in ancient Greece. The complexity of our societies allows us to fool ourselves into believing that we have evolved with a similar level of complexity because of our intellectual and technological advancements.

As adults, we tend to approach the moral lessons of our parables as quaint notions rather than universal truths. We forget that five people touching different aspects of the same thing might have five different perspectives like the 5 blind men with the elephant. Instead of balancing the perspectives, we get angry at others for not seeing the complex thing with our unitary understanding. Instead of remembering that we should be skeptical of the person repeatedly lying to us, we dehumanize and throw names at the person reminding that the boy keeps falsely claiming there is a wolf. Regardless of how one feels about him, Elon Musk's purchase of Twitter has brought to light why we are ignoring some of these universal truths.

The Twitterfiles have been a series of dumps of internal documents and communications organized by independent journalists like Matt Taibbi, Michael Shellenberger, Bari Weiss, and David Zweig. They reveal corporations and government agents and agencies using Twitter, and probably other social media companies, to control and limit the public discourse on topics ranging from "Russiagate" and Hunter Biden's laptop to the origins of COVID, the vaccines, and effective treatment. They have attempted to create the appearance of a unified understanding of complex topics by limiting the number of positions allowed to be discussed. The people we might have in the past recognized as applying the moral truths from childhood fables are called conspiracy theorists. The Twitterfiles have revealed that a better name than conspiracy theorist might be reasonable skeptics. I wonder if re-writing the fables of our past to reflect the complexity of the current world and the fact that we are basically still just hairless apes might help reconnect us to some of those universal truths.

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There was once an entrepreneur notorious for selling inventions that hurt users. He was also known to share his profits with the king and his advisors who protected the entrepreneur, ignoring the harm from the inventions he sold. He went to the king with an idea that would not only add to their fortunes, it would return some of the power and influence the king had lost to local councils. 

Wolves were an infrequent problem for farmers keeping sheep and other livestock. There were shepherds who were well trained through generations of experience at knowing the signs of wolves and effectively shielding their flocks. When wolves overcame the defenses of fencing and shepherds, there were hunters adept at trapping and hunting them down. Most saw wolves as an infrequent inconvenience, rather than a reason to be fearful. This was a problem for the entrepreneur's plans. He knew that the populace would need to feel endangered by wolves to assure the sales needed for massive profit. 

The eastern province of the kingdom had most of the infrequent wolf attacks that occurred. Still, the need for shepherds was shrinking. A single shepherd could protect ever larger flocks. The king and the entrepreneur enlisted a farmer and his shepherd in their plan with a promise of payment. The shepherd would declare that wolves were attacking sheep and the farmer would slaughter a few and be well rewarded by the king for his sacrifice. Every hunter offering his services to the farmer was turned away. Other farmers and shepherds pointed to incompetence as the problem, until the king reached out with similar offers of reward. 

Town criers across the kingdom announced the growing epidemic of wolf attacks in the east. After a few months the king expanded the offer westward across the kingdom to farmers and shepherds in other provinces. The reporting by town criers followed. When the king began feeling nervous about the expenditures they moved onto the next phase of the plan. The king declared that everyone across the kingdom must stay in their homes to be safe from the wolves, even the hunters. The only people allowed out freely were the town criers informing everyone of the still growing danger of wolf attacks. As the populace began to grow weary of being locked away and complaints by farmers, fined for tending their crops, started to mount, the town criers began announcing a new device. The device was a personal wolf alarm that whistled and rattled in the wind to frighten off wolves. Everyone with their personal wolf alarm would be allowed to return to life as normal.

Shepherds and hunters declares these devices to be unnecessary nonsense. Some theorized that the devices would cause problems where none previously existed. Many hunters and shepherds were threatened with jail and fines for essentially calling the king a liar. The people who listened to the shepherds and hunters were depicted as wolf-deniers, pro-wolf, and canidiots by town criers. Residents in larger towns and villages began to use these labels with growing frequency. The people on whom they bestowed these new terms were accused of wanting their children and the elderly eaten by wolves. As the devices were rolled out the king offered the local councils a cut of the profits, which ensured they promoted sales and punishment for those who resisted.

The devices were so poorly made that sometimes the parts broke off causing cuts and bruises to the owners. It was eventually discovered that the devices were made of lead, which made its way into water supplies. Some replaced their devices, others refused. They decided they were not worth the price. Still, it appeared that enough of the devices were in use that wolves had been frightened off. Where the wolves still roamed freely they did seem frightened by the sounds of the devices, at least initially. Being intelligent hunters the wolves began to realize no threat accompanied the sounds. There were no traps or snares, no hunters's arrows. 

People who felt protected by their devices, boldly walking deeper into wolf territories, were the first to notice the problem. Some were treed by wolves, others attacked. Confident wolf packs began attacking livestock and people in areas they had long avoided. The sound of the devices began working like the ring of a dinner bell. The supposed epidemic of wolf attacks had become real. When the town criers announced the pandemic anew, the populace ignored them. Many felt a false sense of security because of their devices, many assumed it was just a lie to advertise the newer devices being made. The king and the entrepreneur could have mobilized the entire populace to greater self protection. Unfortunately, they were too afraid of the consequences of admitting the lies that led to the actual growing wave of wolf attacks.

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The original parable ends with the boy and his flock being eaten by the wolf that eventually appears. The moral lesson was an answer to the question: What happens when someone lies? Consider some of the important questions raised by this re-working of the parable.
  • What happens when our leaders lie to us to fulfill their self interests?
  • What happens if those leaders refuse to be accountable?
  • What happens when those lies break public trust in the institutions meant to keep us safe?
  • What happens if those lies cause us harm?
  • What happens when experts are silenced in service of those lies?
  • How does the public correct those harms without falling into cynicism and despair?
This new version of the Boy Who Cried Wolf parable is inspired heavily by what we are learning about the public health regimen for COVID and the suppression of a wide range of voices to arrive at the appearance of a consensus. There are parallels throughout the Twitterfiles. The questions represent the bare minimum we will need to address to even begin to restore and revitalize the institutions on which our complex and layered society have been dependent.

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