Creating Productive Space: Storytelling and Overcoming Polarization

“Our narratives transcend fact, for they are formed from the delicious emotional nuances of sensation: sound, smell, moods, sensuality, taste, color, shadow, texture, rhythm, cadence, tears, laughter, warmth, and coolness all experienced here, at a place on this earth.”  — Robert Archibald

The Inadequacy of Facts

Ethan Zuckerman has a fantastic post up this week mulling over how we might address and overcome our increasingly polarized politics and culture. The post hinges on the inability of facts to bridge and mend the polarization that is increasingly driving an insurmountable wedge into the most important debates of our time.

In end, he says “the path that leads from polarization towards common ground is rooted in understanding values as well as facts.” Building on that idea he zeros in on Bill Moyers’ recent interview with David Simon (a former journalist and creator of HBO’s The Wire). In the interview Moyers asks Simon “Can fiction tell us something about inequality that journalism can’t?” and Simon replies, “[As a journalist] I would think, ‘Man, it’s just such an uphill struggle to do this with facts.’ When you tell a story with characters, people jump out of their seats.”

“Is America on the wrong track? Are things getting better or worse? Has our political culture become so toxic that compromise is no longer possible?” asks Zuckerman. “These aren’t questions we can answer through marshaling collections of facts. They’re questions that force us to tell stories about our values, to listen to the stories our fellow citizens are telling, and to seek the elusive common ground that allows us to have a functional society.” Be sure to read his post in its entirety – it is far richer than I can summarize here.

How Do Stories Work?

From 2004 to 2007 I studied the question of how storytelling can help communities catalyze change. One of the people whose work was vital to this project was Peter Forbes of the Center for Whole Communities. Peter has spent the last decade arguing that land conservationists, environmentalists, and activists across a range of issues need become better storytellers and better listeners.

When he was at the Trust for Public Land (TPL), he and Helen Whybrow published a wonderful book called The Story Handbook: Language and Storytelling for Land Conservationists. In his introduction to that book Will Rogers, president of TPL, writes, “In our world of information transfer, data exchange, and media impressions, where we become callused by so much communication, stories have the power to speak to us about what truly matters.” Later in the book, Peter Forbes expands on why stories matter to land conservation:

“Telling stories conveys the emotion, meaning, and power of land conservation’s mission. Telling stories is our best hope of reflecting the kind of world we want to live in and, therefore, gives us hope of creating it… And, as conservationists, we must tell these stories because they are growing more and more rare… Without these stories of connection and relationship, there is increasingly one dominant story to hear and one story to tell. This is the story where the point of trees is board feet, the point of farms is money, and the point of people is to be consumers, and the point of other species is largely forgotten. In failing to tell a different story, we fail to express what we really love.”

This distinction between the usefulness of facts versus values is grounded, in part, in our understanding of truth. In The Story Handbook Barry Lopez writes that truth is “something alive and unpronounceable,” but, he adds, “story creates an atmosphere in which it becomes discernible as a pattern.” Truth, then, is glimpsed in the stories we tell, not because they reveal static facts, but rather because of the narrative patterns that are expressed and perceived between the teller and the listener. Stories give us a sense of truth without enforcing any sort of certainty or finality. Lopez suggests that by telling a new story about our lives, our communities, and our relationships to each other, we can bring those lives, those communities, and those relationships into being.

Building An Ark

What is it about stories that make them such useful vessels for articulating values and building relationships between people? I think it may be as much about what stories say as what they leave unsaid. The pragmatic philosopher William James argued that “vagueness” can be productive as “a gap we cannot yet fill with a definite picture, word, or phrase but which, in the manner described some time back, influences us in an intensely active and determinate psychic way.” In telling stories we create these productive spaces where meaning is being negotiated between the speaker and the listener. James says that in response to such gaps we feel a kind of “relation” to one another.

A more concrete example of this idea came up in a conversation with the long-time community organizer Chuck Matthei. He once told me, “facts, opinions, and value statements push people apart, stories bring people together.” His experience in community organizing was that when people talk about facts or state hard and fast opinions, others instantly seek out opposing views. However, when one tells stories, people try to see themselves in the story; they try to relate to it. The values that are articulated through stories are contingent on multiple meanings, and are created in the space between articulation and interpretation. Stories leave open innumerable simultaneous possibilities. They are roomy and accommodating, whereas facts are confined and exclusionary. Stories present ideas as contextual and in-process. In contrast, facts and opinions attempt to be singularly self-contained and essentially finished.

In his essay, “A Fleet of Arks” Scott Russell Sanders provides a fitting metaphor for understanding how stories work. Sanders believes that we need to find ways to gather and conserve “the wisdom necessary for meeting our needs” and creating a more durable society. He envisions this process as building an ark, but one that holds cultures, skills, and wisdom rather than animals. He writes, “A book may be an ark, as Walden and Small is Beautiful and The One-Straw Revolution clearly are, ferrying an ethical vision through stormy times.” Similarly, a story may be an ark, a vessel that we fill together, in conversation with one another, in dialogue with our communities.

The question I was left with after reading Ethan Zuckerman’s piece was how we can create more space for narrative and storytelling in our political and community life. For a long time, much of the media has abandoned its role as a public square. New journalism efforts and independent media organizations are trying to rebuild journalism in ways that embody this notion. I’m encouraged by the passion and creativity I see in many of these new efforts, but am also aware that there is much work left to do.


  1. Larry Glover says:

    A beautiful piece and resource on narrative and story Josh. I’m delighted to discover your site. The post provokes my thinking about how stories shape our perceptions and experience of self and the world. Thank you.

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