Richard: The human world is made up of two forces; the immutable laws of nature, and devised stories. The first are unchanging, the second is a set of currently established beliefs that we choose to collectively agree on to allow societies to function, law and order to exist and commercial arrangements to be possible.
Some of these stories are so deeply ingrained in our societal-psyche, that we can forget that they are just stories and when they are no longer serving us can be changed. What makes us hang on to outdated stories?
Jon Thor: Before I answer that, let me say that anyone doubting that stories are powerful only needs to look to history; rich people and politicians over the years have their fingers in many pies, but almost always the super-rich and powerful of a generation have their fingers in media and news. Politicians and wealthy people don’t own news outlets because there is such good money in selling advertising space, but instead because they know that owning the news means that you can control the stories. This can allow a narrative of their choosing.
Owning the news means that you can control the stories.
Being born in Iceland, I think I notice how acutely this happens in the UK. I remember that after some especially harsh words were exchanged in Parliament, the next day I was waiting at the checkout counter in a supermarket and saw two newspapers next to each other. One of them had put Jeremy Corbyn’s face on a chicken and the other one had put Boris Johnson’s face on a clown. They were talking about the same story, but they had separate villains. It would be like going into a comic book store and seeing one comic, saying, ‘how will Batman defeat his arch-nemesis, the Joker’, and then the other one next to it saying ‘what’s wrong with that dude in the batsuit, he keeps beating all these mentally ill people.’
They were talking about the same story, but they had separate villains.
Two sides of a story being portrayed in such incredibly disparate viewpoints and that is the interesting thing about storytelling in society.
The stories we are told as we’re growing up are typically the ones that we most try and hold on to, whether they ‘serve us’ as adults in a developing society or not. And it’s these stories where we often don’t allow ourselves to see things from another side. But it is possible to change this and there are examples of how little things can bring new opportunities for change to light.
One successful way to challenge people’s viewpoints and help them to better understand other perspectives is actually via memes and internet jokes. This is a way for people to portray a different viewpoint very quickly, simply and humorously. When someone laughs, that moment can enter their subconscious and can create a lasting impression. That can lead to someone re-examining their viewpoint.
One successful way to challenge people’s viewpoints and help them to better understand other perspectives is actually via memes and internet jokes
With this in mind, people are recognising that to change viewpoints, one way that’s working is to use effectively guerrilla tactics, things like surprise, humour and novelty to break through the emotional barriers that can prevent someone wanting to change.
One way that’s working is to use effectively guerrilla tactics
Sometimes we feel that some stories should be ‘protected’, as if they are sacred and we cannot touch them. Stories about what we can say, what we can do and what we should eat. Stories can be ingrained into our society, but look elsewhere and we see that differing perspectives and norms prevail.
Sometimes we feel that some stories should be ‘protected’, as if they are sacred
Take veganism as an example, if you visit certain places, you’ll find that they are actually proud that there is bacon on the menu. I saw a post about a man that makes wine, who was asked, ‘is your wine suitable for vegans?’ In response to this question, he posted a picture of himself dipping bacon into it saying ‘it isn’t anymore’.
It’s like there’s this strange pride about being against ‘new’ stories. It’s interesting to me that in this example someone who’s effectively running a business is willing to throw profit away that could come from the vegan population. Posting a picture that they feel is such a powerful insult to that community. But why do this?
It’s like there’s this strange pride about being against ‘new’ stories.
The sad thing for me is that they probably won a lot of points from the bacon lovers out there, but that’s what’s really interesting about seeing two different sides of a story. We can get so one-sided in our own stories that often we end up doing the same thing that’s been done in wars; when people dehumanise the other side. Generally, our inability to see another perspective isn’t as extreme as the example of how people can rationalise a war, but still a specific vocabulary emerges where people decide what’s okay to say and what isn’t and this can be polarising.
I saw a great post on social media the other day where someone had traced the lineage of the term Feminazi, this was a highly derogatory term for people fighting for feminism used about 10 to 15 years ago. They noted in the post how sharply the term declined in popularity when the political right started to sympathise more with those being called Nazis.
These are examples of stories where people have chosen a side and then tried to dehumanise the other side. Many of the stories that we see in our everyday lives are incredibly polarising and intentionally trying to provoke sharper reactions. Stories can reinforce people’s limiting beliefs or move individuals away from near the political centre to the extremes of the far right or left.
Many of the stories that we see in our everyday lives are incredibly polarising and intentionally trying to provoke sharper reactions.
Stories, however, can also help us to see other perspectives and avoid getting stuck in the echo-chamber of news and views where algorithms provide more ‘evidence’ of what we already perceive to be the ‘truth’, and in this lies our opportunity for positive change.
Avoid getting stuck in the echo-chamber of news and views