We are, by nature, storytellers. It is perhaps the single most distinguishing characteristic of Homo Sapiens. Lots of animals can communicate, but we can tell stories. According to historian Yuval Harari in his book Sapiens:
...The truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather it's the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all... fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively.
And this ability enables individuals to compel great numbers of people to work cooperatively in aid of a shared goal, whether for better or for worse. I have chosen to be a story teller by profession. Which, in my case, takes the form of being a movie producer. As such, I am very aware, not only of the existence of a seemingly infinite number of stories to tell, (or are there really only three as some people say), but also of the audience who will receive those stories.
In my business, if there is no audience for the story, then it isn't worth telling. This brings me to the some of the terrible stories we hear every day about what is happening in places where religious extremists are wreaking havoc on their fellow humans. We are all horrified, outraged and baffled by the actions of groups like ISIS and Boko Haram and the acolytes they are attracting. Who are these people? Why does anyone see this level of cruelty and barbarism as a solution to the world's problems? The answer must lie in the fact that they are telling their story, and have found an audience that is receptive to it.
Our response, which is to retaliate with strategic military action, is quite simply the wrong response, because it is fighting the wrong enemy. The enemy is the story. We don't understand that because we are very clearly not the audience.
The fact is that the West, in general, and the United States in particular has been telling a very different story for a long time. Our story has been wildly successful and it still speaks to a lot of people. In part that is because we back it up. The fact is that if you live in this country, a poor boy from Arkansas or a black man named Barak can become president. Life can be a struggle for many who live here, but we do have a democracy and a legal system that is at the end of the day, not above the law. People still want to come here. They mass at our borders and send their children on reckless journeys because they believe the story. It is up to us to continue to make that story true. Something to think about when we weigh the cost of letting undocumented aliens find a path to legal status. These people represent one or two degrees of separation to vast numbers of other people who may also buy into our story.
This brings us back to the extremists. What need is being filled by the story they are being told? Fending off the threat of a common enemy who wants to destroy them is a big piece of it. The myth that there is a Western war on Islam no doubt stirs a great many to join the extremist "cause.' A sense of hopelessness or powerlessness also certainly plays a role. The real task ahead of us is to change the narrative. Just how we go about it is the challenge.
We must debunk the myth that we are at war with Islam. And we must stand behind that story by not being at war with Islam. We need to back up our very grand story by supporting humanitarian causes abroad. I believe that people will walk toward the bright light if they can see it. But if they are left in a void they may gravitate toward anyone offering an alternative to the status quo. Our enemies tell a story of revenge, hatred and brutality. We need to talk over them with a story about tolerance, freedom and opportunity. But the old practice of "Do as I say, not as I do," will be the death of our story. President Obama has begun talking about controlling the narrative. Well, we know how to tell a good story. But if we are going to drown out the barbarians, our story has to be true.