Storytelling v. Statistics at Sundance

Whatever you thought of Drew Westen’s op-ed earlier this year, he’s an interesting thinker, and I wasn’t surprised (and from the perspective of getting politics and art in conversation with each other, rather gratified) to find him on a panel at Sundance with Sen. Barbara Boxer, Margaret Atwood, and director Mark Kitchell. Fittingly for an event on the power of narrative, Westen said that one of the things his research had uncovered was the extent to which people shut down when you give them statistics about policy issues, while stories kept their minds opened.

“In Florida, over 10 percent of the homes have been foreclosed. When you say something like that, it’s an interesting thing…But it doesn’t tend to draw the feeling that a story would draw,” he argued. “It means one in ten parents in Florida has gone to their child and said ‘I’m sorry, this isn’t your room any more.’… Unconsciously, it is extremely difficult to live with the idea that the world is unjust…we all know victims of diseases, and catastrophes, but to live in a world where we honestly believe that things are capricious and things just happen and there’s nothing you can do about it is a really awful place to be…Never talk about the unemployed. Because when you talk about the unemployed, you take real people with pain-lined faces, and you turn them into a nameless, faceless abstraction…People start to go with the just world hypothesis, and asking ‘what did he do to lose his job?’”

Obviously, I don’t think this means that you should never use statistics in policy discourse: we don’t do private bills in the United States, and you’ve got to prove the magnitude of a problem in addition to its emotional impact on a single person. But I wonder if it makes sense to start with stories, and then hit folks with the numbers? Or does that risk overwhelming listeners with emotions that they can’t accept exist on a large scale because it’s simply too much to process?

In any case, I think there’s no question that structuring narratives is critically important to give people a hook into issues. And while humans may be the most effective protagonists, there are other ways to set up drama. Mark Kitchell, the director and producer of environmental documentary A Fierce Green Fire pointed out that telling a story doesn’t always require that narrative to be character-driven, or driven by a single main character. I’d argue that March of the Penguins did perhaps the best job I’ve ever seen, outside of Pixar movies, of creating non-human protagonists and creating drama out of its protagonists’ struggle to reproduce. It didn’t need a baroque villain: the forces at work were unfamiliar enough to most people to be dramatic standing on their own.