The Importance of Story

I recently attended a talk about intensive animal agriculture at a conference on veganism at Princeton University, New Jersey. I’ve been involved in animal advocacy for twenty years professionally as a writer, editor, and publisher, and personally as an activist, so I found the lecture (an overview of the challenges faced by Brazil, China, and India in maintaining food security and biodiversity, mitigating the effects of climate change, and the consequences for animal welfare) very interesting.

In the question-and-answer session that followed the talk, a business graduate in the audience told the lecturers that they hadn’t laid out the dollars and cents of the issue: that only through the accumulation of hard facts on percentage gain and loss would advocates convince people that our arguments had merit.

The graduate’s comments intrigued me. As far as I was concerned, the talk contained a lot of data—persuasive, non-partisan, up-to-date—that made a compelling case for these countries not to pursue a factory-farming model of agriculture. Yet clearly the speech was too loaded with narrative and didn’t point enough to the bottom line for this young man’s liking.

In the course of my work as a publisher and editor, I come across many activists who believe that what I will loosely call “story” has no place in advocacy. They either, like the business graduate, want the message to be delivered as a set of incontestable facts that can withstand objective analysis. Or they wish to eschew words in favor of a series of graphic images of animals suffering in factory farms and slaughterhouses, laboratories and rodeos, etc. Or, if words must be employed, they should be straightforward and unvarnished, even bullying, appeals to conscience, reason, or cultural prejudice. If we were to sum up such an approach it would be that human beings are rational beings who, when presented with credible and accurate information, will make a logical decision and act accordingly. Or flood them with propaganda. Our task, therefore, is to supply that data and/or undam the cataracts to shock the conscience.

I’ll leave analysis of shock tactics for another post. So what of the data argument? I’m as attracted to the empirical as the next person, and I’m similarly drawn to the idea that we’re a logical species governed by Reason. The irony is that as a species we’ve shown ourselves to be deeply committed to yarns—especially those that explain our origins and how we (were) separated from the (other) animals—and the notion that we make rational decisions based on full knowledge is as tall as tale as the others we tell ourselves.

In fact, so tenacious are these stories that the Passionist geologist Thomas Berry suggested it was time that humanity create a new narrative—the Universe Story—more suited to the Anthropocene era that we live in. We needed an account, he thought, that placed alongside the pre-scientific myths of our sacred scriptures the remarkable, unfolding tale of the cosmos and our planet itself. That so many people in the United States trust more the fables of how we came into consciousness than in the theory of evolution only makes plain how deeply embedded these seductive narratives are in our psyches, and how resistant we are to substitute a newer story for an older one.

Under such circumstances, it’s nothing less than going against human nature to jettison narrative in favor only of graphs, or contextless pictures, or facts, facts, facts. When I think of what has influenced my worldview, it is not a datum or a shocking video. Charles Dickens’s Hard Times admirably captured for me the soullessness of an education without humanity and his Our Mutual Friend excoriated long before the 2008 financial crisis the shallow, febrile grubbing around in the mud of an economy built on illusions. In 1984, Barry Hines’s made-for-television drama Threads brilliantly unfurled more succinctly than any nightmarish presentation on the news the absurd horrors of nuclear war and the social, physiological, and linguistic decomposition of the nuclear winter.

The TV miniseries of Alex Haley’s Roots moved me deeply with its compelling depiction of the Atlantic slave trade and the extraordinary resilience of African Americans in the New World. J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and The Lives of Animals revealed to me the scarred and cornered soul forced to recognize the common fate it shares with other-than-human life. And the epic Battlestar Galactica (2004–2009) dramatized the startling insights of the law of eternal recurrence and the multiple challenges a state at war faces in protecting individual liberty and freedom of conscience from the enemy within and without.

Stories take time—to tell and to hear. They present complexities, nuances, ambiguities, and ironies. They tend not to offer solutions, tips, or guides for living. They are transformative, but, as the wedding guest finds in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, they may not offer anything more immediately concrete to the recipient than an unsettled feeling of being sadder and wiser than before the tale began. As human history shows, they have the potential to change the way we look at ourselves and set us on a wholly different course. So, let’s not jettison the story as a method of bringing the plight of animals to the public simply because of our fantasies of reasonableness or because it requires more effort to relate.

About martinrowe

I am the co-founder and publisher at Lantern Books, and the author, editor, and ghostwriter of several works of fiction and non-fiction. I live in Brooklyn, New York.
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