July 3, 2013

The Power of a Well-Told Story

From Two American Families (via the New Yorker)

If you screened Two American Families for Charles Murray and other social critics who believe that the decline of America’s working class comes from a collapse of moral values, social capital, personal responsibility, and traditional authority, they would probably be able to find the evidence they’d need to insulate themselves against the sorrow at the heart of the film.
But the intellectually honest response to this film is much less comforting, for the overwhelming impression in Two American Families is not of mistakes but of fierce persistence: how hard the Stanleys and Neumanns work, how much they believe in playing by the rules, how remarkable the cohesion of the Stanley family is, how tough Terry Neumann has to become. Both families devoutly attend church. Government assistance is alien and hateful to them. Keith Stanley says, “I don't know what drugs or even alcohol looks like.” In the words of Tammy Thomas, whose similar story is told in my new book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, these people do what they’re supposed to do. They have to navigate this heartless economy by themselves. And they keep sinking and sinking.

This is George Packer in the New Yorker talking about a new PBS Frontline documentary Two American Families about the declining prosperity of two families in Milwaukee.  I would like to see it, though I know it’ll be heart-wrenching.

But what I love is Packer’s point about stereotyping vs. the power of detail.  It’s easy to insulate ourselves from pain and social responsibility through the power of reducing someone ~ or a whole class of people ~ to an idea.  We can dismiss it handily without feeling any remorse.  It’s the same way hunters can bear to kill living breathing animals and soldiers can murder other people.  The other is reduced to an object, a target, an idea.  Hunters and soldiers have to, or they couldn’t provide for or protect their families and their homelands.  It would tear them up and often does anyway.  But in a social context, it’s a choice, an easy out.

But I’m not here to soapbox you.  My point is the power of detail.  The way you reach people is through the immense empathy created by a well-told story.  Le mot juste, the exact right word, or words. That’s Packer’s point.  This documentary has the power, if you give it “an intellectually honest response,” to push you past your comfortable notions of who deserves and who is to blame and to see on an individual level the effects of forces beyond their control.

As a fiction writer and as someone who does marketing for my job, I am constantly reminded of the power of details, of a narrative, to move people.  Writing can be used for infinite good, for empathy, for love. That’s why I strive every day to get better at it.

No comments: