“A system that privileges rationality over emotion is a system that protects the status quo”. How stories can help break through


Two excellent pieces in Open Democracy’s consistently inspiring Transformation site on the power of storytelling in mobilising communities and pitching to power.

First from the young playwright Tatty Hennessey, who asks us “why should we care about stories”?

It’s easy to look at the structural, systemic, global nature of the issues we face and feel tired or baffled or even apathetic. It’s not that we don’t know what’s going on - we’re more informed than we’ve ever been. The problem is that it can be hard to care about things that feel so much bigger than ourselves.

It’s hard to care about a concept, but it’s easy to care about a person. We’re wired to do it, and stories run on people. A story can put a unique, individual, human face to nebulous ideas, bypassing our intellect and getting right to the heart of the matter. It can make us care, and caring is the root of action.

A story also allows emotion and sentiment into the picture. More than that, it demands it. So much of the conversation about politics and economics today revolves around eradicating feelings from the equation. We want to be rational,which we’re told to believe is the opposite of emotion. ‘Facts don’t care about our feelings.’

But this dichotomy privileges those who have nothing to lose from the outcomes of discussion.  It’s easy to stay emotionless, to appear ‘rational,’ when the conversation is, for you, theoretical. It’s only possible to discuss institutional racism, poverty, sexual violence or disability discrimination without emotion when those things have never threatened you. 

Climate change is like that too. It affects people living in poverty disproportionately and drastically exacerbates its effects, but it is largely fuelled and driven by those whose wealth and privilege protect them from the outcomes of their actions.

A system that privileges rationality over emotion is a system that protects the status quo. Stories have no such qualms. That’s why it’s so important to ensure that a wide variety of stories can be told and heard.

Second is this piece from Scott Slovic, on the need for “bright words” when making a public case for protecting nature, in law and journalism:

In her book Democracy’s Edge: Choosing to Save Our Country by Bringing Democracy to Life, the writer and activist Frances Moore Lappé argues that “We cannot create what we cannot imagine, and to imagine, we humans need stories and we need words to tell them.” In all areas of civil society, there is potential to cultivate storytelling skills and bring narrative discourse into the professional contexts of law and policy-making. Legal scholar Charles Wilkinson made this case in 1992 in his landmark essay “Language, Law, and the Eagle Bird.”

He suggests that gray, emotionless, hyper-rational language supports the status quo of contentious debate rather than promoting consensus with regard to natural resource management decisions: “Those who favor the status quo have much to gain by keeping emotions down. Evocative statutes with a strong emotional and scientific and philosophical content make a difference. A federal judge can more easily see the force behind the statute when he or she is alerted by bright words.”

Wilkinson’s call for the use of “bright words” in natural resource negotiations and the laws and policies that emerge from such discussions refers not only to the specific diction used by negotiators but also to the possibility of broader styles of communication—such as stories—that capture readers’ or listeners’ attention and empathy.

Psychologists such as Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll have explained that the human capacity to feel empathy is limited to small-scale phenomena. We are prone to appreciate the situations of small groups of characters or individuals rather than large groups, even when the goal of communication is to describe the impact of a decision on a large class of people or on other species (or different kinds of abstract phenomena).

Storytelling is a communication strategy that helps the tellers and the audience to find common ground. The website www.arithmeticofcompassion.org highlights the role of stories as an antidote to the numbing, distancing effects of abstract information and technical jargon.

But even if we all have the potential to be citizen storytellers - raising our voices to share personal experiences and galvanize the attention of our communities and our public officials to issues of shared concern - this doesn’t mean that we necessarily understand what goes into an effective story and how to pull together salient details from our lives into efficient, focused narratives that reach toward public consensus.

As a writing teacher, I train my students to read examples of policy-oriented storytelling, which can be found in the short essays by Bill McKibben, Nicholas Kristof, and other contemporary writers whose work appears in newspapers, on websites, and elsewhere. General introductions to the style and structure of op-ed essays can be found on websites such as this one.

We hear a lot of talk these days about the distressing tribalism of American society and the splintering of our diverse communities into bitter factions. But if we step away from political partisanship and entrenched stances on pipelines, border walls, and who’s hacking whose campaign website, we have genuine potential to listen to each other’s stories and find common ground. Organizations like Hands Across the Hills show us how to do this effectively.

Do you know anyone who doesn’t live on the same planet and require natural resources in order to get by? Do you know a single person who doesn’t have a story to tell? Nature brings us all to the table, and stories allow us to hear each other when we get there.

More here.