Changing the Stories

Even in this postmodern age, we in the West like to think of ourselves as fundamentally reasonable beings.  We can be persuaded by logic and order our lives by intelligence and reason.  We like to believe that being a human means logical brain-power.  The capitalist system that rewards STEM fields and penalizes the humanities backs up this belief with survival-of-the-fittest: if you’re oriented around math and science, you’re more likely to survive in America.

IMG_20150301_201907If we think of reason as our highest faculty, logic as the thing that is most persuasive, we not only sell humanity short, we also will fail to capture the sort of large scale consensus necessary for successful social movements.  Because humanity is not fundamentally reasonable.  We are fundamentally beings of imagination, myth, drama, ritual, essentially subjective beings not objective ones.  Capture our imaginations, and you capture our selves. Just look at the proliferation of nerd-tastic fandoms that spring up around particularly imaginative, compelling stories.  If we try to advance the future by appealing only to reason, we make a statement about what we think humanity should be, and it’s not a pretty one.  If we are to move forward, our entire selves must be set in motion.

People define themselves in using stories, whether it’s the tale of how their grandparents came to America, the saga of their difficult teenage years, or the way they see themselves somehow mirrored by a character in the Harry Potter novels.  I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who would define themselves using a syllogism rather than a story.

Those we oppose use stories to great effect.  Hyper-consumption is extremely illogical, tantamount to the entire human race committing suicide, yet people still dive headfirst into that lifestyle, because advertising persuades people to become consumers by selling them stories, rituals, and sense experiences that appeal to something deeper, older, and more vital than pure reason.  The government concocts a purely fictive narrative about the nation’s origins, purpose, and present mission, meant to manufacture within the populace a feeling called “patriotism” which is merely unreasonable loyalty to the state. And it works.

The stories that those of us seeking liberation can create are not the same as those of the advertisers and the government.  They are not a form of intentional mind-control.  They are a reclamation of humanity’s creative impulse, so long diverted to serve the capitalist state, or beaten down and discouraged.  We must encourage those in our movements and those in the general populace to reclaim myths of their ancestors, and to invent new myths, to act out drama and ritual to recreate our consciousness and our world.  Power lies in stories and we need to claim it for ourselves.

Speculative fiction has always been used to explore the potential and pitfalls of human society.  Star Trek, Octavia’s Brood, The Hunger Games, all in very different but important and powerful ways explore issues vital to current society.  As the editors of Octavia’s Brood suggest, tapping into the wells of speculative fiction to advance social justice is a powerful potential path for transformation.

“Eat No Chikin” Solidarity Cow using humor to subvert the story an advertiser is trying to tell.

For so long, the Western world has been under the sway of a single set of myths as contained in the Bible. It’s true that official religious texts can be important sources of wisdom, for instance, the minor prophets have a lot of poetic things to say about social justice, and Jesus can be very inspirational to political radicals (as documented in Reza Aslan’s excellent book Zealot).  But we need to reach back further to revive other myths as well.  Ancient stories revolving around the feminine principle, animating the earth, tapping into the ancestry and heritage of ethnic groups whose history and stories have been repressed, uprooted, and attacked by the dominant white culture.  These ancient myths are important for feminists, those working for ecological justice, and those seeking racial justice.  Queer people are beginning to re-discover the queerness in ancient myths, bringing into relief the fact that Western cishet norms are not as universal as we’ve all been led to believe. Just hearing a story for the first time that centers people like you, that speaks to something you experience every day, that you know deep in the very center of all that you are, can feel like a rainstorm in a drought.

Ritual and drama take the words, the stories, the thoughts and dreams, and bring them into the physical world.  By reviving and creating practices that reverence each other and the earth, we work out the muscles our bodies need to bring into being a new world.  We practice for what we’ll have to do to get from here to there, and we practice for living in the better world we’re dreaming of.  We bring drama to the streets, seamlessly transitioning from practicing to actually doing. And we return to a ritual that brings healing and calm after we have given our bodies and minds to political work.  When we translate myths and dreams into action toward the future we envision, we involve our entire selves, heartmindbodysoul, in the creation of that future.

Something as simple as lighting a candle on New Years' can move your intentions from your mind to a physical act and something that is happening, the burning of a candle, in the material world.  Practicing following up plans with physical action is where you train yourself for actions of much greater import.

Something as simple as lighting a candle on New Years’ can move your intentions from your mind to a physical act and something that is happening, the burning of a candle, in the material world. Practicing following up plans with physical action is where you train yourself for actions of much greater import.

If the entire person, if the entire spectrum of human talent, is not engaged by our movements, they will not be powerful enough to overcome the totalistic structures that rule our lives.  The mind needs to be engaged, but so does the imaginative, creative impulse.  We cannot just take away the stories and rituals of capitalism and statism, we must be able to replace them.  The stories and rituals we have begun to revive and create speak to the humanity of the people more deeply than the empty stories and rituals perpetrated by advertisers and propagandists ever can do.

The trick of course is to break through the maddening deluge of information and entertainment provided by modern society. This, I’m not sure how to do, but I believe we can, a little here, a little there, until people realize they don’t want more passive entertainment, they want a vision that speaks to the entirety of their being.  And one person, and one family, and one group, and another and another, step out into the streets and begin to put into motion the new stories that we have all begun to tell one another.

So weave your myths and your reasons and your rituals and your dreams, join in with people already working creatively and practically toward something better.

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