Activism & Storytelling: Level 3

Mis­ter Fox is a pas­sion­ate believ­er in the pow­er of sto­ry. And he will yam­mer on about it at any oppor­tu­ni­ty. This is the third and final part of his dis­course on Activism & Sto­ry­telling, which he deliv­ered from atop a small hill, sil­hou­et­ted by a full moon, to a wily band of rad­i­cal ani­mals who believed a bet­ter forest was pos­si­ble, and that brave indi­vid­u­al and col­lec­tive action could make it a real­i­ty.

Lev­el 3: Change the sto­ry, change the world. Beyond strong moti­va­tion­al nar­ra­tive, beyond con­sis­tent organ­i­sa­tion­al sto­ries, the real gold, and the real chal­lenge, lies at the invis­i­ble lay­er of sto­ry as the oper­at­ing sys­tem of soci­ety. There are sto­ries that behave like mytholo­gies: they explain the world, our role in it, and define the bor­ders of what’s pos­si­ble and what’s not. “The Earth is the cen­ter of the uni­verse, and the sun and moon and plan­ets revolve around it because God cre­at­ed it for human­i­ty.” That was once a sto­ry most of the world believed. It explained the world, and the place of every­one in it. It drove rit­u­als by which peo­ple mea­sured their time and hon­ored the sto­ry. Then along came Coper­ni­cus, with a dif­fer­ent sto­ry, and things got a lit­tle messy, until the sto­ry of the sci­en­tific method grew strong enough to chal­lenge it. The belief that order and pros­per­i­ty in South Africa depend­ed on empow­er­ing whites and keep­ing non-whites sub­ju­gate and sep­a­rate was a per­fect­ly func­tion­al mythol­o­gy until Biko, Man­de­la, and a gen­er­a­tion of activists broke the spell of the con­sen­su­al hal­lu­ci­na­tion. They proved true Vaclav Havel’s famous paean to whistle­blow­ers, civil dis­obe­di­ents, and free­dom fight­ers: “Liv­ing with­in the lie can con­sti­tute the sys­tem only if it is uni­ver­sal.”

I was born into an era in which, in the US, we lived under an eco­nom­ic mythol­o­gy that was just about to crum­ble as I entered high school (dressed as I was in psy­che­delic poly­ester shirts and bell-bot­tom jeans). The Earth was believed to be lim­it­less and growth could go on forever. Malthus had talked about the lim­its to pop­u­la­tion growth in the 1800s, and been met at the bor­der by Major Dis­agree­ment and Gen­er­al Scoff:

If the prin­ci­ple of pop­u­la­tion were so active and the mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of mankind so rapid as Mr Malthus asserts it seems very strange that the world which is so many thou­sand years old should not yet be half peo­pled … That peri­od there­fore when count­less mil­lions are to lan­guish in all the extrem­i­ty of want which Mr Malthus rep­re­sents as such an approx­i­mat­ing woe and an object of such imme­di­ate alarm is either nev­er like­ly to arrive or else is placed at such an immea­sur­able dis­tance as to be no object of appre­hen­sion or dis­may.” (Dis­ser­ta­tions on Man, J.Jarrold, 1806)

By the 60s and 70s, oth­er sto­ries were chip­ping away at that hap­py delu­sion: books like The Lim­its to Growth, Silent Spring, the Pop­u­la­tion Bomb, Future Shock. But noth­ing illus­trat­ed the sto­ry of Earth’s lim­its bet­ter than the sin­gle image of Earth­rise over the moon’s sur­face: a vision so pro­found­ly star­tling that the Apol­lo 8 astro­nauts who first wit­nessed it dropped every­thing they were doing — no small feat for mil­i­tary-trained pre­ci­sion­ists — to gasp in awe and fum­ble for every cam­era in the cap­sule. The sto­ry that we lived on a pale blue mar­ble in the vast­ness of space changed the way we viewed our­selves and our plan­et, and changed the course of civil­i­sa­tion. There was the stage upon which every sin­gle human sto­ry had been act­ed out, and where the human sto­ry might begin and end.

If sto­ries are the oper­at­ing sys­tem of the world, where are the data ports through which they can be hacked? The adver­tis­ing indus­try has known that for decades: in the emo­tions and val­ues with which a good sto­ry attach­es like a tro­jan horse virus to a long­ing in the human heart, unleash­ing an action that pur­ports to cure that long­ing: be beau­ti­ful, buy this; be stronger, buy this; make more mon­ey, buy this. In the activist world, I fear we too often think that we win hearts with facts. That ratio­nal­i­ty will win the day. James Hansen, the NASA sci­en­tist who raised the alarm about cli­mate change in the US, tried for a decade to calm­ly lay out the facts in the voice of sci­ence, expect­ing them to wake human­i­ty up, such was the hor­ror any lit­er­ate per­son could see in his stats. But our world isn’t shaped by ratio­nal behav­iour. It’s shaped by emo­tion­al align­ments, by con­sis­ten­cy heuris­tics, by irra­tional leaps of faith, by sto­ries that attach like cocoons to a long­ing in our hearts and release a del­i­cate winged crea­ture of such beau­ty we must fol­low it, chase it toward a bet­ter world, trade in our day to day sat­is­fac­tion with what is for the cre­ative pur­suit of what might be.

All of us love to lis­ten to the sto­ries around the camp­fire: this was how, for mil­len­nia, we learned what berries to eat, how to avoid bears, how to look for the mag­i­cal wood that burned all night. Sto­ries taught us how to be human beings, taught us how to coop­er­ate and live togeth­er, and helped us become the dom­i­nant life­form on the plan­et by help­ing us share infor­ma­tion in way we’d remem­ber it, in ways that would help us sur­vive. Sto­ry­telling made us col­lec­tive­ly smarter.

Today our great­est sto­ry­telling has been har­nessed for com­merce. The Koch broth­ers, coal mag­nate broth­ers who have reaped the ben­e­fits of the indus­tri­al age to become bil­lion­aires, are loath to see the milk cow die. They dump truck­loads of mon­ey on US pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates to put ques­tion marks around cli­mate change and to decry as “unamer­i­can” any­one who would think of tax­ing car­bon. In a time that demands change, the sto­ries the Koch broth­ers tell — that change is impos­si­ble, it’s too expen­sive, that it’s being pro­posed by peo­ple who are not like us — hold back a bet­ter world in favour of the one where Cor­po­rate giants roam the Earth feed­ing quite hap­pi­ly on what’s left of the land­scape with­out much con­cern in their tiny brains for any of those aster­oids up there in the night sky, head­ing our way.

Those of us who do look up and see those aster­oids urgent­ly need to become bet­ter sto­ry-tellers, sto­ry-crafters, sto­ry-mas­ters. When Occu­py Wall Street broke into the pub­lic con­scious­ness, it was an alter­na­tive sto­ry to one of the most pow­er­ful mytholo­gies about the Unit­ed States: The Amer­i­can Dream. Instead of the land of gold­en oppor­tu­ni­ty, in which any­one had an equal chance to achieve wealth, Occu­py intro­duced the con­cept of the 1% and the 99% as char­ac­ters in a very dif­fer­ent sto­ry of wealth dis­par­i­ty. Instead of the vision of a class-blind, gen­der-blind, col­or-blind sys­tem in which any­one could excel with hard work, Occu­py chart­ed the increas­ing gulf between ambi­tions and pos­si­bil­i­ties for the mid­dle class and the bil­lion­aire class. What Occu­py failed to do was pre­scribe a solu­tion. Enter Bernie Sanders with a plan, not only to redis­trib­ute that wealth, but to put it to work fight­ing cli­mate change, pro­vid­ing health care and edu­ca­tion for all Amer­i­cans, and reduc­ing mil­i­tary spend­ing. And mil­lions of peo­ple respond to the sto­ry of an unlike­ly Don Quixote who actu­al­ly may have a point about those wind­mills, and become lis­ten­ers to his sto­ry, re-tellers of his sto­ry, cham­pi­ons of his sto­ry, char­ac­ters in his sto­ry. Occu­py paint­ed the pic­ture of a bro­ken land, cre­at­ing space for some­one to say “I have an idea” — to ven­ture out of the vil­lage to slay the drag­on, to wrest the trea­sure from its lair, and return it to bring peace to the king­dom. The stage is set for a hero, but it won’t be a lone one. Bernie’s sto­ry, or the sto­ry of who­ev­er even­tu­al­ly seizes this story’s flag and suc­cess­ful­ly car­ries it up the moun­tain, will only tri­umph if mil­lions of peo­ple believe it to be a flag they believe in.

If a sto­ry gets told in an emp­ty forest,” says Mis­ter Fox. “It isn’t a sto­ry.” But a sto­ry that gets told on a moun­tain, to a forest full of beat­ing hearts des­per­ate for hope, can be the next great sto­ry in the epic of the human jour­ney. The one that reminds us that humans are artists of the impos­si­ble, bet­ter than our lesser natures, and capa­ble of over­com­ing any obsta­cle fate or our own hands might choose to lay before us.

I’ll be running a day-long workshop in Story as Theory of Change in Oxford March 8th 2016 Berlin on October 5th 2016.  London March 21st 2017  Sign up! If you know an activist, artist, or entrepreneur who you think would benefit from some story mojo, nudge them toward that link or share this blog. The story that we can change the world gets stronger every time it’s retold.

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