Professional Storyteller

Share a Story - Change the World


Cultures are dynamic and are always in flux. What happens, however, when there is evidence of an eroding values system within a specific culture? Can a particular culture’s worldview intentionally and substantially change? It is unarguable that one’s worldview, culture and values are entrenched and to influence the alteration of these is difficult. However, the idea that affecting one’s worldview, culture and values to the point of change is not impossible. What this discussion proposes is that worldviews, cultures, and values can indeed be changed, resulting in not only the transformation of an individual’s life, but an entire culture as well. Storytelling in particular is a catalyst that can bring about substantial changes in worldview, culture and values. What do you think and why?

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Tags: culture, story, storytelling, values, worldview


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Comment by Steve Evans on April 5, 2008 at 2:31am
Could it be that any story, every story, has the power to not only inform but to influence? It seems that every story told touches somebody somewhere at sometime. In fact, it is probably true that every story selected by a storyteller to share is selected for a reason, no matter how innocent – at minimum because that particular story touched him or her in some way when it was heard or read. It was then decided to pass it on to others.

One of the leading scholars on human communication as narration is Walter Fisher. Fisher focused on the concept that all human communication is narrative based. “In the beginning was the word or, more accurately the logos. And in the beginning, ‘logos’ meant story, reason, rationale, conception, discourse, thought,” he said in his book Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value, and Action. “Thus all forms of human communication—from epic to architecture, from biblical narrative to statuary—came within its purview.” Professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, Fisher published his work on what he called the Narrative Paradigm in 1995. It focused on the importance of narration as a mode of human reasoning and has led to a fundamental rethinking of how people apprehend knowledge. The Narrative Paradigm is a theory…that all meaningful communication is a form of storytelling or to give a report of events…and so human beings experience and comprehend life as a series of ongoing narratives, each with their own conflicts, characters, beginnings, middles, and ends. In 1984, Fisher proposed that the way in which people explain and/or justify their behavior, whether past or future, has more to do with telling a credible story than it does with producing evidence or constructing a logical argument.

Fisher referred to humankind as homo narrans and proposed that all forms of human communication need to be seen as stories. He considered individual forms of communication as “good reasons,” that is, as values for believing or acting in certain ways. These good reasons are a type of narrative logic that all humans have naturally, forming the foundation of all human communication. Fisher said: “The narrative paradigm proposes that human beings are inherently storytellers who have a natural capacity to recognize the coherence and fidelity of stories they tell and experience. I suggest that we experience and comprehend life as a series of ongoing narratives, as conflicts, characters, beginnings, middles, and ends. The various modes of communication—all forms of symbolic action—then may be seen as stories, interpretations of things in sequences. … I propose the narrative paradigm as a philosophy of reason, value, and action. Narrative rationality is its logic. The essential components of this logic are the following. Human communication is tested against principles of probability (coherence) and fidelity (truthfulness and reliability). Probability, whether a story “hangs together,” is assessed in three ways: by its argumentative or structural coherence; by its material coherence, that is, by comparing and contrasting stories told in other discourse (a story may be internally consistent, but important facts may be omitted, counterarguments ignored, and relevant issues overlooked); and by characterological coherence. Concern for this third type of coherence is one of the key differences between the concept of narrative rationality and traditional logics….”
Comment by Nick Smith on April 3, 2008 at 7:53pm
Share the discussion wherever it seems appropriate. :-)

I can think of a couple of examples of how a story has affected American history. Granted, both were in written form, but also spread via spoken anecdote and in other ways.
First is the fairly clear example of Uncle Tom's Cabin, a novel written out of disgust with the system of slavery. The novel became a bestseller and was also staged as a play, but more importantly, people who never really thought about slavery found themselves discussing the topic, and it helped to polarize the discussion, and therefore the nation.

Another example of how this doesn't always lead to the good guys winning, is the less obvious story of the history of electrical power. The technological and philosophical battle between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, fictionalized in many sources, was quite real. Edison, understanding the power of story, convinced the public that Tesla's version of electrical power was more dangerous, by a simple expedient...he publicized the fact that Tesla's system was a GOOD way to execute prisoners. Oddly, you could execute prisoners with Edison's direct current system, too, but at a higher equipment cost...but I digress.
My point is that Edison used the power of story, in the same way that politicians often do, to convince the public that they "know" something which isn't really true or relevant. People used to "know" that tobacco wasn't dangerous, or that it was okay to have lead in gasoline, because they were told these things, in the form of stories [advertising and commercials are also stories, in their way].
While I'm in devil's advocate mode, what about when a story is no longer true? I'm not just counting all of those internet stories that were maybe true in 1987 and won't die...what about archetypal images from folktales? For instance, how much of what people "know" about wolves is influenced by what they remember being told as a kid, from fairy tales? They may have been dangerous and scary in 14th century Europe, but do they deserve that same reputation today? Just asking... :-)
Comment by Steve Evans on March 31, 2008 at 11:40pm
Hi Nick. Thanks for your insights and comments. I am reminded of what a friend of mine in Bhutan said. He is the editor of the major newspaper there. His name is Dasho Kinley Dorji, and he is the chief editor of Bhutan’s Kuensel News Corp. Kinley feels his country is going through difficult times, on the road to a complete destruction of the country’s values systems. One way to combat that, he believes, is to create stories calling attention to the situation and ensure that those stories are shared and heard.

His creative non-fiction short story Pretty Woman portrays how the introduction of television to Bhutan in 1999 thrust the country into dramatic and painful change. The story tells how, over a period of seven years, a young boy and a young woman collide with forces much greater than themselves, their community and even their country. She was the prettiest girl around – strong, sun-darkened, and hard working, with a face as round as the moon and a singing voice that enchanted all the men. He was a young boy, growing up in a volatile climate of change (still continuing today), confused by what he observes.

“The story invites important questions,” Dorji said. “Are the side effects of development taking a toll that is more powerful than the effects of mainstream development? This is symbolized by the immediate excitement over television that far exceeds the advantages of electricity as a source of power for utilities.” (Electricity comes to the story’s setting in 2003.) “In a country where there are now an estimated 50,000 television sets compared with 14,000 computers, television becomes a major status symbol and dominates the altar in the altar room” (as it does in the story), he said.

Over a period of seven short years, the country’s hero is no longer the king, but athletic superstars and Bollywood film actors, and the beautiful image of the hard working village girl is replaced by singing and dancing Bollywood stars and bikini-clad Pepsi models. The end of Pretty Woman is poignant and bittersweet:

Aum Thrimi looks into the distance. “They are so pretty, the girls. They are so thin. They are so fair. They smell so nice.” She looks at Kuenley, a gangly five-foot nine-inch boy, standing with his hands in his pockets. She turns and looks out the window again. “Better study hard, Kuenley. Otherwise you’ll have to live in the village. You have to work all day in the sun. You have to walk everywhere with no shoes. You have to carry manure on your back and smell of cow dung. In the village you will quickly become ugly. We have no choice because we are already old and ugly.” Kuenley says nothing. He does not know what to say. Thrimi is 27 years old. She has not changed. But the world had changed.

“This story is Bhutan’s story,” Dorji said. “The metamorphosis of a rural society is documented through the eyes, and the confusion, of a Bhutanese youth who personifies a generation in transition. There are no subtleties because the experience is not subtle.” The message that comes through as the pair’s community feels the impact of globalization is that there is an urgent need to put on the brakes before it is too late to do anything about it.

Bhutan is a country crying for help and believes in the power of story to help them. What do you think?

Best wishes to you. STEVE

PS - If it's okay with you, I think I will use this as another blog topic and in the Appled Storytelling: The Power of Story group.
Comment by Nick Smith on March 28, 2008 at 6:03pm
There are certainly examples of a culture's values being altered by the dissemination of information, opinions and ideas. It seems to me that the hard part is to figure out how to spread things that will have a beneficial effect. Figuring out the end result isn't as easy as all that. Was it good or bad that the 16th century Japanese culture gave up using guns?
Yes, it meant that for the next three centuries their wars were less bloody...but it also meant that they had to suddenly modernize and militarize in the 19th century, causing changes which led sequentially to World War II. Suddenly the question isn't as simple.
So, and I'm not trying to be funny here...what if you tell the wrong story with the intent of changing the world, and change it for the worse? Isn't that what demagogues do all the time?
When a whole society grows and changes, it does to "organically" to some extent, with its own values and the circumstances interacting. When someone tries to "nudge" a culture in order to achieve a goal, you can get either a Lincoln or a Hitler. History suggests that one is about as likely as the other.
So, it seems to me that the best way for storytelling to bring changes is for the stories to bring issues and ideas to light, rather than trying to force the worldview in the direction the teller prefers.



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