Notes on Storytelling

I just finished a mini series on US gun violence on Revisionist History, the podcast of nonfiction celebrity author Malcolm Gladwell.

The topic was on my mind the last days after talking to a friend couple who just moved from Taiwan to the US. From one of the richest countries of the world to the next. From a place where people use their MacBooks to reserve a table in a downtown café to one where “downtown” might be a place where people openly take drugs and you think twice about going there even during the day. (At least that’s what they told about Seattle.)

Gladwell is a great story-teller and the six episodes were as entertaining and educational as thought-provoking. His style is very conversational and relatable, jumping back and forth, getting lost on tangents, more like stand-up than journalism. The approach is great – as long as you don’t mistake it for journalism, you complement it with some actual reporting.

I – Grappling with a complex case

Anyway, instead of trying to deliver a map of “the issue of gun violence in the US in the 2020s”, Gladwell jumps around from issue to issue, taking a more anthropological, anecdotal, random? approach. We are thus visiting a few lawyers on a recent case on gun restrictions in New York, doctors in ER departments specialized on gun shots, gun lobbyists.

And yet, even though I know his approach – and he makes very clear in every episode where he’s trying to go – I was still waiting for “the solution.” Or at least the problem. Turns out: there are lots of both. Gun laws are important but not enough. Culture and narratives are important but not enough. (He talks about western movies and speculates how they helped to proliferate the idea of self-defense.) Health care is important but not enough. (He explains how financial incentives make it almost impossible to offer proper emergency aid in those areas where it’s actually necessary.) And then there is mental health, the role of trauma in gang violence, for example, extending violence “an eye for an eye.”

If this sounds scattered it is because it is. And so I as a listener was left as I probably should, standing befor a big mess with no solution or even clear idea in sight.

At this point, many pieces, articles, podcasts come to a conclusion like “In order to fix gun violence we have to fix society.” It’s a message that Duke University’s John Biewen for example explains again and again in his great series on race or on masculinity on Scene on Radio (S2 “Seeing White” and S3 “Men”). It’s one of the central tenets of Critical Theory, a message people gather around to address “racism”, “inequality”, “global warming.”

Yet, these endeavors are as grand and important as they are abstract, intangible, and often un-actionable. It’s an activist’s job to create salience and attention, but salience and attention alone don’t solve problems. I am thus happy that Gladwell ended on a different note.

II – Step by step

Abdullah Pratt, an ER doctor who returned to one of the most dangerous neighborhoods to serve his community, closes the show when explaining why despite doing so much through his career choices, he still looks for the time to educate students in schools. “I just want the youth to feel power at times. I just want them to feel like they have ownership of their own community and that they are the best positioned to solve these problems. There is no one in some big chariot, some messiah that gonna come through, a politician that’s gonna fix your problem. It’s gonna be you that’s what history shows us.”

John Stewart, a figure I look at with just the same ambivalence as Gladwell, said in a recent interview on his return as a primetime host: “They always talk about ‘the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.’ But it doesn’t bend towards justice by gravity! Like, you have to bend it. And there’s a bunch of people trying to bend it back.”

My main take-away from Gladwell’s is another reminder on the messy process that is actual change. All the attention on “federal gun regulation”, billionaires, celebrities – what does it really do for the students sitting in Pratt’s class? Is “saving democracy” really the right strategy to act? What does it even mean? Gladwell and Stewart are right when they push to action, small actions, any action.

III – Storytelling as betrayal

It is this what makes Gladwell’s approach still important. What differentiates it so much from the more problematic communicative tactics of our time. Gladwell is great in telling stories – which for him means to betrays the audience’s expectations. It is this violation of expectations that has often become so cancerous in our contemporary culture. The epiphanies of TED that want to teach us that it is moments of sudden inspiration that change our lives. The galaxy-brainery on Twitter, where people promise to turn our way to see the world around in 400 characters. The obsession with “interestingness” in science that sparked the replication crises and lots of fraud.

What makes “stories” different from these things is that stories are contextual. They don’t want you to change your world. They don’t want to give you answers. They want you to question and doubt it, by giving you an example of where it might fail. They want to give you questions.

Stories are data. So how much of the problems of our time is that we don’t care any more about data (singular)? We care about patterns. “Progress.” “Intelligence.” “America.” “Justice.” The stuff you can build keywords around. The neurons deep in the algorithm that’s trying to figure out which specific picture to show you. The formless glue that connects my hopes and dreams and desires and fears with yours, even though I sit in Taipei and you maybe thousands of miles away. But by wanting to talk to you and me and everyone, this glue doesn’t mean anything anymore in the end.

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