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Storytelling in the Age of Hot Buttons

We're having THE debate again. You know the one I'm talking about. Gun Control.

I don't tend to get too political on this blog. But I am a politically active person and make no secret about how heartbroken I am at the loss of lives and many injuries in Las Vegas, and the many such mass shootings we have been having far too often and in increasing numbers. But, as far as politics go, I just helped create an ad for Brianna Wu, who is running for Congress. The ad is campy and meant to be taken lightly (at least in any literal sense). At the same time, it definitely lets us know how she feels about our Potus. Here it is ...

Oh, and if you're wondering how I feel about our Potus, I think Stephen Colbert does a great job every night of taking the words right out of my mouth.

As for gun violence in America?

I was profoundly moved by the recent film, Miss Sloane. The film is complex and nuanced but ultimately makes a strong statement. I hope to see more thoughtful stories of this kind being made in the years to come. Why? Because I think we need to engage people both thoughtfully and emotionally.

Engaging the Mind

If interactions I've had with people on social media (one particular recent interaction with a person I do not know) are any indication, we are a society profoundly lacking in critical thinking skills. This person objected to my pleas for him to think through his arguments more carefully in the future as an attack on him as a person (an ad hominem attack). It was at this point that I realized that our interaction was unlikely to bear any real fruit, so I had to opt out. This is to be expected on social media, especially when interacting with people we don't know personally.

As this video indicates, we're not wired to really examine arguments based solely on logic. So, information that contradicts our established views can be interpreted by the more primitive parts of our brains as a threat to our well-being. Here, take a look ...

I think the real call to action from such information is that I need to do all I can to critically examine my own beliefs and ensure that I have applied careful logic as best as I can manage. This is an ongoing process, which means I'm regularly thinking through things and at times saying to myself, "No, this doesn't make sense, Mikel. Have you thought of this possibility or objection?"

The above video also reminds me that there is no "them." There's only us. Winning an argument, as great as it can feel in the moment, is not really all that beneficial. After all, I can feel like I "won" when the reality is that the other person just thinks I'm an idiot (which, to be fair, is a very real possibility).

The more important goal is helping someone genuinely consider a view they may not have given much thought to before. On the very best of days, maybe someone says, "I see. You've changed my mind." But the truth is, these days are rare. Changing our minds about anything takes a very long time. That's probably because the things we might get into an argument about on any given day are not things we're willing to genuinely examine just then. As I'm fond of pointing out, I think Franciscan monk, Richard Rohr, is right about the notion that even on our very best days we're only willing to question at most 5% of what we believe (see his book Falling Upward). So, chances are, the person I'm getting into an argument with on Facebook over gun control is someone for whom today is not a day when that topic is in their 5% (if it's even a full 5% today). For that matter, is gun control in my 5% today? Can I be objective about my logic? I'd like to say yes, but I know myself way too well to do that. At best, I think the answer is ... I'd like to try to aim for that.

And how do I aim for that? I seek to value logic above my own feelings. That's pretty hard to do, but it's something that is only accomplished in small moves over a long time. This means that the process of self-examination takes a long time and changes are incremental. It also means that I have to humbly recognize that I believe I've been wrong about many things in the past and that as this process continues, I'm likely wrong about a whole lot of things right now too which I hope to eventually not be so wrong about.

Engaging the Emotions & Mind

We are emotional beings by nature. And as much as we'd like to believe we make choices based on logic and facts, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of the choices we make in life are actually governed by our emotions. This is one reason why stories are of such pivotal importance to use. Stories present information, both new and familiar, within an emotional framework. A narrative is the marriage between logic and emotion.

Before you object and comment below that stories are purely emotional, it is worth remembering that our logical minds are essential to the narrative experience. After all, only through cognitive awareness of context can narrative have any meaning. If I rip a page out of the middle of a novel and hand it to you, there's only so much sense you can make out of that single page. Likewise, if I show you only one minute from the middle of a movie, there's very little you can grasp of who the characters are and what is taking place in the plot.

Without the active engagement of our minds in storing information so that we can recall the context of events, who characters are, and what events have transpired before any given moment in a story, experiencing a narrative is impossible. To illustrate this point, allow me to use what might at first seem like an absurd example.

Within film criticism theory there's a rather interesting philosophical question: if a movie reel is run through a projector and shown to an empty theater, was a movie actually shown?

Our instinctive reaction might be to say, "of course, a movie was shown!" After all, the reel of film (these days a hard drive with a DCP file) says the movie's title on it. On the film (or hard drive) are all the frames that make up the movie and the soundtrack that goes with it. That's the movie! If that's what the projector and sound system played, then a movie was shown.

Not so fast, I must respond. After all, without the cognitive engagement of an audience, what took place in that empty theater was merely the casting of varying amounts and frequencies of light onto a screen and the playing of various sound frequencies with no inherent meaning when divorced from context. But context is an experiential construct within the mind of an audience member. To an empty theater, a movie played backward or forward makes no difference. Likewise, to a bookshelf, a book resting on it filled with the complete works of Shakespear is indistinguishable from one filled with random letters and numbers.

Narrative is something that only exists when it is experienced. And to be able to experience a narrative, we need our minds engaged.

But we need more than our minds too. We need empathy and connection to the events. We need to care about characters and their choices. When a story violates logic, we find our ability to suspend our disbelief and accept the fabricated reality of this fiction before us begins to evaporate. If we're watching a drama set in Victorian England, we understand that it would be illogical for the main character to suddenly produce a Star Trek style phaser and stun her presumptuous suiter in the third act. It violates the logic of the story (and our trust in the storyteller).

The Storyteller's Burden

Along with this logical engagement, as a storyteller, I recognize that it is my responsibility and great privilege to offer up a narrative that is both emotionally compelling and logically sound. It is also of prime importance to me that the implications of my story be ethical. That is not to say that I would not write or create a story that has a tragic ending or functions as a cautionary tale. This still falls within the realm of what I perceive as ethical storytelling.

On the other hand, I have seen plenty of movies that in an attempt to provide an emotionally compelling ending wind up implying some really screwed up shit (that's the philosophical term). A recent example is the movie Passengers, which I've written about in the past. The movie tries to wind things up with a happy ending that inadvertently implies a lot of things I don't think it meant to imply or that any decent movie should imply. You can read more about that here.

The point is that while the internal logic of the story may be relatively sound (no sudden "it was all a dream" bullshit surprise ending), movies like Passengers lack a deeper sense of logic in that the implications of the story and character choices seem to not have been considered all that carefully. This is a different kind of violation of the trust the audience puts in the storyteller. Here, I thought you were going to tell me something meaningful. Instead, I think you just implied that as long the girl ends up liking me, it's okay for me stalk her and rob her of her intended future? (LOUD BUZZER)

So what does this mean for storytelling the age of hot button issues like gun control?

Well, for starters, I think we need to come to terms with the potential unintended consequences of our culture's affinity for action movies with heroes who brandish lots of guns and swoop in to save the day. This is one reason I love most Batman stories so much, and appreciate The Dark Knight in particular. Here's a hero uninterested in firearms and going out of his way to not take lives. Meanwhile, The Dark Knight stands as an example of a narrative that tackles some big ethical questions. It's not at all a movie about how cool Batman is and how much he can kick butt. Rather, it's quite the opposite. It dares to ask the question of whether such a vigilante, even with noblest of intentions, is really the right answer. The Batman violates his own ethics and forms a surveillance system that helps him thwart the Joker. But he recognizes the slippery slope he's on and ensures the item's description. An astute viewer hopefully goes out for a drink with friends after watching the movie and poses the question: even if he destroyed it, was it still right to have made it in the first place?

​​What separates The Dark Knight from Passengers? The Dark Knight acknowledges and wrestles with the real issues brought up by the story (you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the enemy). Passengers merely tries to get us to empathize with the main character's solitude and thus excuse his ultimately horrible choice. Where the Batman chooses self-sacrifice at the end of The Dark Knight, Passengers forces an implausibly happy ending that leaves no room for any other interpretation than that Chris Pratt's character is meant to be viewed heroically. How a film ends matters a whole lot when it comes to what is ultimately implied by the narrative (this is where Beatriz at Dinner also fails, in my view). We need more thoughtful movies dealing with our most passionate social arguments. This way, maybe we can both intellectually and emotionally engage these topics and see things from someone else's perspective for a couple of hours.

Can we see more stories that tackle gun violence and politics like this? I think Miss Sloane succeeded. And because of this, I am refraining from discussing it too much here because, by golly, I want you to get on Amazon Prime tonight and watch the movie for yourself!

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