Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Telling Life: Using storytelling for evil or good

I have been teaching storytelling in a wide variety of settings for many years. There comes a moment in every class when I make students laugh with what I think is actually one of the most important and serious instructions I can give them.

I remind them that storytelling is so powerful that they need to be careful how they use it. It can be used for good. And it can be used for evil. At this point everyone laughs until I give them some examples of the dark side of storytelling. Hitler. The Cultural Revolution. Rwanda. The Ku Klux Klan. So many times, the incredible power of spoken narrative has driven people to commit terrible acts, to believe the worst about the world around them and to lash out. Students grow quiet. Their eyes widen. I can see each of them considering the stories they have told and the ones they have believed. They see its power abused and remember what people have been driven to do.

It's not a joke. I wish it were. 

Storytelling is so effective because our brains are wired for story. We feel more empathy and are more likely to act when we hear a compelling story than through just about any other form of persuasion. For that very reason we need to both be deliberate about the stories we tell and the messages we give AND be aware of when we are being manipulated by a well-told story.

We live in a nuanced world. There are few absolute evils and absolute goods. Fairy tales make things simple; this is not a fairy tale world, life is rarely that clear-cut. When we believe stories that tell us that one life matters more than another, that one group of people is responsible for the woes in a culture, that our own fears and hopes can be answered by hurting others, we need to consider the narrative. Consider the speaker. Consider ourselves. 

No one is immune from a well-told story. Yes, story can change the world. We get to decide what stories we believe, what tellers we follow and how we want to respond. We get to decide what world we want to live in. Don't forget that a well-told story can be as dangerous as an incitement to riot, a call to war, a wall that divides us. Why not use story to build bridges instead?

(c) 2016 Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License

1 comment:

  1. Imagine all the people living life in peace. You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. I hope someday you'll join us, and the world will be as one. See the link below for more info.



True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at
Related Posts with Thumbnails