Stories Transport & Activate Us

Here’s a challenge:

Try to think about a social or environmental issue without images from movies or TV shows flooding your brain.

Hard to do, right?

This is because there’s no “outside” to culture. Culture is the lens through which we experience and make sense of the world. We are social animals and so everything that we say, do or think is impacted by culture. Culture is what gets down deep and permeates our core. In fact, it’s not really accurate to say we are impacted by culture. It’s more accurate to say that we ARE culture.

If we are made out of culture, then culture is largely made out of stories. We often figure out and process the world through stories, or, as psychologists call them, behavioral scripts.

In other words, you already have a story in your mind of how Thanksgiving will likely unfold: profligate Uncle Earl, three beers in, watches football instead of making the cornbread, motivating Mom, scotch in hand, to yell at the top of her lungs, which makes Dad, polishing off a box of wine nicely, threaten divorce, resulting in doors slamming, which makes neighbors come by with a care basket, which makes everyone act abnormally normal to keep up appearances, dissuading no one from eating their emotions, which results in food comas for the entire family, mercifully ensuring that all sleep off the stress and thus narrowly preserve family cohesion for another year.

Even if this isn’t your exact experience of Thanksgiving, knowing that the above is possible helps you deal with every twist and turn and get through to the (hopefully happy) conclusion. Reinforcing this, of course, is the obligatory “stressful Thanksgiving” episode of every American television series. In fact, some scientists think that dreams are our brains way of using story to prepare ourselves for real events and traumatic events.

Since we are hardwired for stories, they are also particularly useful elements of culture for social changemakers to use to get traction on their issues.

Studies suggest, for example, that we pick up on and internalize racial biases in television and movies. This can work in both positive and negative directions. For example, “The Cosby Show” may have shattered some negative stereotypes about African Americans but also convinced white Americans that more progress on racial equity had been made than was actually the case.

If you’re a numbers person, check out our Science section for more quantitative proof that stories work. If you’re a thoughts and feelings person, though, and still not convinced, read on.

Think of a scene from a movie or TV show that made you really really sad, that maybe even made you cry. Think of the characters, the setting, the time period. Now, think of the character(s) you empathize most within that scene.

Do you share their race or ethnicity? Gender? Age? Socioeconomic status? Geographical location?

Did you go through the same exact situation as they did in that scene?

Your answer to at least a few of the above was probably ‘no.’ But you felt and understood exactly what the characters felt and understood, right?

It’s said that the more specific a story is, the more universal it becomes. In other words, if a filmmaker wants to reach and move the most people with a story, she or he shouldn’t make it some big abstract thing. Great storytellers know that, ironically, the most powerful and emotionally moving stories are tied to a specific time, a specific place and a specific person.

This is a central paradox of stories and another reason why they are valuable for changing the world. Stories matter because they are the best telepathy devices – the only telepathy devices – we have into the lives and struggles of other people. They allow us to get into the minds and thoughts and feelings of another person and say,

I’m not an African American woman and domestic worker in 1960s Mississippi,

I’m not a teenage Latino immigrant in search of a better life in the United States,

I’m not a young Asian American science student in need of a little encouragement to fulfill my dreams,

I’m not a transgender woman of color who is also dealing with the challenges of incarceration,

I’m not a senior citizen trying to live a fulfilling life in a society that sometimes seem to value youth above all else –
I’m none of these people, but I now understand what it might be like to spend a day in their shoes.

If you think about it, stories are the only things that allow us to cross the unfathomable distances between each other. Usually, we’re in our own lifeboats set adrift at sea, separate and apart.

Think about how many times you’ve been in a business meeting, with the purpose of getting everyone “onto the same page.” At the end of the meeting everyone agrees that yes, everyone is all totally on the same page…and then, you meet two months later to find out that not only are you not on the same page—you’re not even reading the same book, and you never were! It’s amazing, and truly depressing. But stories are what allow us to hop into each other’s lifeboats, if only for a few hours in the movie theater or while binge watching Netflix.

And luckily there are now, arguably more than ever before, TV shows and films the tackle social and environmental issues. Jane the Virgin regularly throws up onscreen messages and hashtags encouraging viewers to learn more and to take action on the immigration storylines onscreen. American Crime did an entire episode with real victims of gun violence intercut with scenes from the show. East Los High on Hulu last season included storylines and special features on access to health care for undocumented immigrants. The People Vs OJ Simpson on FX juxtaposes the institutionalized racism of the 1990s LAPD with the Fergusons and Black Lives Matter of today. Leonardo DiCaprio is developing a young adult post-apocalyptic climate change film. Bordertown, an animated comedy on FOX, Blackish, and Fresh Off The Boat all regularly raise issues surrounding immigration and race and use the tools of comedy to shape and reshape our perspectives on these topics.

We are culture, and culture is story. There is no other better way for reaching people on your issues. Search for one that can work for you today!