How Storytelling Has Infected Society—And Vice Versa

This is Part 1 of a 3-Part Series. See Also: Part 2. (Part 3 is upcoming.)

Storytelling Enters Society’s Bloodstream

When I began calling myself a professional storyteller in 1976, I found myself riding a wave that others had created, a wave that was later called the “storytelling revival.” That very year, eminent child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim had just published The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Three years before, the first National Storytelling Festival had been held in Jonesborough, TN.

Like some in the nascent storytelling movement, I had come from the folk music and folk dance movements. Storytelling seemed like another stream flowing from that cultural restoration of folk wisdom and folk play.

Why all this interest in traditional culture? It seemed that society was looking for wisdom in unfamiliar places, and that we storytellers held a lamp that could illuminate exotic bazaars and hidden alleyways. And adults as well as children responded as children have always responded to stories: with full engagement, delight, and a seemingly endless hunger for more.

So, as I began this endeavor, I saw storytelling as a possible antibody to the commercialism, competition, and materialism that had infected the bloodstream of our society. We were few, but we believed our effect on society would be good.

Fast forward to 2016

Storytelling seems to flow freely now through the larger society’s arteries. Just now, I searched for “storytelling” in LinkedIn(2), the social networking site for business people. There were 650,989 results, including:

  • 309 groups for storytelling;
  • 3,309 jobs for storytelling;
  • 9,665 companies listing storytelling as part of their work, and
  • over 600,000 individuals (presumably; I gave up after viewing 38 pages of names) who list storytelling as part of their job description, expertise, or training.

All this is in addition to the many thousands of websites, books (spanning the categories of business, marketing, psychology, etc.), videos, college courses, youth storytelling contests, and so much more.

Have we cured society and restored a deeper sense of our humanity? Has our species awakened from its zombie-like march to its own destruction?

The Dark Side

In the U.S., we recently experienced a presidential election where the power of story was evident, but not its power to humanize. Instead, we saw the destructive side of storytelling, the same kind of threat to the truth that the hyper-rational Enlightenment philosophers had warned against, centuries ago.

Here’s an example, verbatim from Donald Trump, talking about the 9-11-2001 bombing of the twin towers:

I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering.

This story has absolutely no basis in fact.(1) But it was a rumor on the internet. Trump, perhaps, having imagined the rumor after having been told about it, could not distinguish his memory of the event from what he heard. Then, once his followers heard the story, they believed it, too.

In other words, part of the power of storytelling is that, once you’ve heard a story and imagined its events, it’s hard to erase those images from your mind.

As a result, just hearing a story repeatedly—true, false, or a mixture—many times, without adequate corrections, makes the story seem to be unquestioned fact, a part of your own experience.

With help from the internet, which makes it easy to hear only the stories told by those who share your point of view, many of us have heard blatantly false or exaggerated stories told and referred to so often that they have become “true” to us.

Have We Let Story Become Infected?

virus_in_the_blood_stream

I don’t have any control over what candidates say or who repeats hearsay on social media and talk radio. My voice would not be heard in that environment—or worse, misunderstood as an attack on what I actually hold dear. As a result, I seldom speak about the misuse of storytelling—choosing instead to speak about its power to humanize and unite.

But, as a coach, author, and teacher, I do have a bit of influence with us, the inheritors of the storytelling revival. So, when I noticed that the inhumanity of the larger society had made inroads in how even we think about storytelling, I decided that I had to speak out.

The Two Infections

I see at least two important ways that the teaching of storytelling has become infected by the dominant worldview:

  1. Over-emphasizing conflict (and ignoring connection);
  2. Treating stories as objects (not as relational processes).

I’ll describe these infections in Parts 2 and 3 of this series, along with ways to fight each one.

Until then, let’s be thankful that we live in a time when:

  • Children have more access than ever to storytelling;
  • Storytelling is no longer confined to children; and
  • We are able to discuss these issues across distances and national boundaries.

Yours toward a humane, inclusive, just future,

Doug Lipman