Serious storytelling and the dragons of complexity

Serious storytelling and the dragons of complexity
(Illustration on silk by Mira Nussbaum)
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I’m a big fan of shows like “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad,” and “Game of Thrones” that highlight webs of inter-connections as well as humanity — and human failings — on all sides. In my job as a professor at SUNY ESF and my work with Planet Forward, I like to think of myself as a “serious storyteller”: someone who draws on the power and nuance of storytelling to support reasoned dialog, thoughtful decision making, and critical thinking.

After the 2016 election, it seems to me, the art of serious storytelling just got both harder and more interesting. If we are to adapt and avoid becoming irrelevant to significant portions of public life, serious storytellers are in need of a game changer. In “Game of Thrones,” the Khaleesi’s dragons are a game changer. For those who are able to embrace them, the impossible becomes possible.

Three modern-day dragons have been brought into stark relief by the 2016 election: first, the fallibility of modeling and analysis in the face of complex and changing patterns; second, the extreme divergence of worldview between different sectors of society; and third, the increasing linkages between the legitimation of knowledge and the exercise of power.

None of these things, of course, are new to 2016. Like the Khaleesi’s Dragons, they have been growing for several seasons, and were passed down through the ages in dormant form long before that. Now, however, they are full grown dragons that must be reckoned with. But — if we are willing to embrace them, there is reason for hope, and even joy. This joy is not for everyone, perhaps: it’s a kind of serious joy that comes when a confined space opens up, the walls and floor fall away, and one is free to fly or fall.

It takes courage to embrace a full-grown fire-breathing dragon, and it takes both courage and creativity to embrace three of them at once. What might such an embrace look like in practice for people whose job and/or calling it is to promote reasoned dialog, rational decision making, and critical thinking?

Embracing the first dragon looks like drawing on science to amplify and empower people’s innate curiosity rather than their need for ultimate truth or justification. Embracing the second looks like telling stories that engage and inspire people across political and cultural divides. And embracing the third dragon means authentically engaging the interplay between knowledge and power. 

Watch out for this third dragon, though: it’s a feisty one. Its message is that eloquent words and nifty diagrams can be masks for those whose interests are served by a particular claim of cause and effect, or a particular way of framing an issue. As I write this ode to complexity, for example, I am aware that even characterizing an issue as complex can be a form of power masquerading as knowledge, as when a toxic polluter strives to avoid responsibility by pointing to the multiplicity of factors that might be contributing to a pattern of disease or harm.

That’s not my intention in talking about complexity though. I see the acknowledgement of complexity as recognition that any single perspective offers only a partial view. This recognition then serves as an opening — an invitation to have conversations with people holding different views, to develop new forms of creativity, and to engage in new kinds of collaborations. But that’s my perspective, from where I sit as someone who wants to build and empower platforms for meaningful engagement across people, disciplines and organizations. 

How do we get around this unavoidability of perspective, and its linkages to interests and values? We don’t. In characterizing an issue or problem, or in framing an issue, we are also characterizing ourselves — our backgrounds, influences, values, and interests. Embracing the dragon of knowledge linked to power does not require a descent into the flames of partisanship, however. Rather, it is an invitation to make ourselves as characters more visible in the stories we tell.

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communicating science, Complexity, framing, Journalism, media, science communication, Serious Storytelling, storytelling

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