Category Archives: stories for social change

Skutnik Stories: Everyman Stories at the State of the Union

SkutnikBy Rivka Willick

When does a story turn into propaganda? I have no doubt that we will get a chance to ponder that question once again during the next State of the Union Address when one or more Skutniks will be woven into the annual speech.

What’s a Skutnik?  I’m glad you asked. A Skutnik is a story about a real person who has done something exceptional or noteworthy and is woven into the US President’s State of the Union.

Ronald Reagan began the tradition in 1982 when he invited  Lenny Skutnik as a personal guest. Just two weeks before, Jan 13, 1982, this everyman witnessed a plane crash into the Washington D.C.’s 14th Street Bridge. He saw a woman lose her grip on a rescue line and fall into the water. Lenny dove into the river and saved her.  Reagan, “The Great Communicator”, used Skutnik as an example of “the spirit of American heroism at it’s finest.” The camera found Lenny seated next to Nancy Reagan, which surprised him.  Americans cheered, after all who doesn’t love a hero?

Two years later Reagan singled out another hero in his 1985 State of the Union, Sergeant Stephen Trujillo who showed heroism during the U.S military action in Grenada. From that point on this storytelling technique became a staple in all the State of the Unions, regardless of political affiliation.

In 1986 13-year-old Trevor Ferell’s efforts to deliver food and blankets to the homeless in Philadelphia became a story about American generosity.

President Bill Clinton made eighth grader Kristin Tanner a symbol of American academic superiority when she brought in high scores in the Third International Math and Science Study.

Geroge W Bush told Hermis Moutardier’s story in 2002. He was one of two flight attendants who stopped shoe bomber Richard Reid from detonating an explosive on a Paris to Miami flight. Houston Rocket’s center, Dikembe Mutombo joined the Skutnik club in 2007 when Bush used his story about raising $29 million to build a hospital in Africa in his State of the Union address.

Barack Obama singled out Mr. and Mrs. Pendleton, parents of Hadiya Pendleton who was gunned down in Chicago just days after singing at his Inauguration.

Last year Trump took the “everyman story” to a new level. He did 16 Skutniks…(Mr. President, maybe less is more.)

So now that you know what a Skutnik is and how it is used, are you ready to tackle the question? Is there a place for these heart tugging personal ‘real people stories’ in the State of the Union?  Are they used unfairly to draw people to one side or are they a manipulative tool ? Do they illustrate ‘American Exceptionalism’ or use individuals accomplishments to promote  a specific political agenda?  Is this storytelling technique used in other countries during policy speeches or is it just an American Institution?

When does inspiration in a story stop and propaganda begin?

Let me know what you think.

 

Rivka works as a storycoach online, in person, and in workshops.  She’s also a storyteller and writer. Contact her at Rivka@simplyextraordinarytales.com

 

Toxic Tales – Propaganda (part 1)

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By Rivka Willick

Propaganda-we know the word and most of us would consider it a bad thing, but have you really thought about it? Have you been swayed by propaganda? Do you run into it very often? Do you ever spread propaganda, either knowingly or unknowingly? I decided to take a closer look and discovered that propaganda is woven into the culture from several directions.

Let’s start with the definition.

Merriam-Webster’s Definition: 1. the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, cause, or person.  2. ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause.

Dictionary.com Definition: information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view. “he was charged with distributing enemy propaganda”

 

Merriam-Webster’s definition focuses on the purposeful and deliberate use of information, ideas, or allegations. Dictionary.com emphasizes the biased or misleading element of propaganda.  I was especially interested in the Dictionary.com’s example sentence and its use of the word enemy.

After reading the first definition, I thought maybe propaganda could be a good thing, but after I read the second, I came to a deeper understanding.  Propaganda divides us-it creates an Us and Them mentality.  Propaganda is designed to make the listener feel superior, be on the right side, be acknowledge as one of the good guys.  Unfortunately, once it becomes a game of us and them, we stop looking for solutions, or examining the flaws inherent on the “good guys” side.

Propaganda is often filled with truth, but often partial truths or the deliberate deletion of negative facts, but it’s wrapped up in pretty pictures and often…compelling stories.

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After I got the general idea, I searched for specifics and came across a classification system on a marketing site. https://marketingwit.com/examples-of-propaganda (yes, propaganda is used a lot in marketing).  Let’s use their basic groups to get a better understanding of propaganda and its many forms.

Stacking the Deck – Leave out certain facts (unpleasant or negative) and include only the positive ones. How often do you do this when you want to look good and push an idea?  Do you include the other side?  crowd-2152653_1920

Mob Mentality – You are inferior unless you behave, buy products, or believe like the rest of us. Anybody who doesn’t is an outcast.

Name Calling – This one is self-explanatory. Using negative words or names to describe someone or something tells the audience who is the bad guy. Now we can take sides. Politicians use this, but historical storytellers can also fall for this trap.

For Your Own Good – Present an opinion as a fact that should be followed.  Presenting something as an absolute truth makes it difficult to bring up or even consider another side.

Rotten Apple Philosophy – Just as one rotten apple canapple-271967_1920 contaminate an entire barrel of apples, a negative trait or idea can taint and dismiss the entire person or idea.  (I fall for this one all the time)

 

When propaganda is woven into our stories, it becomes especially powerful.  If the story is compelling, fun, or emotional, we may not notice or care that we’ve been swayed to one side or the other unfairly.

 

In Propaganda Part 2, I’ll try to tackle political propaganda -specifically when used in “The Presidential People Stories” (Just in time for the US State of the Union)

 

Rivka is available as a story-coach online, in person, and through workshops.  Contact her at Rivka@simplyextraordinarytales.com 

Toxic Tales: “The Worm in the Apple Stories.”

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Toxic Tales come in all shapes and sizes.  I’m going to focus in on a very common type in this post.  I originally thought of calling it the “Oh You’re Gonna Suffer Stories” but decided to be a little poetic and call them “The Worm in the Apple Stories,” because these nasty little tales burrow into listener’s consciousness and often end up spoiling experiences.

These stories are often personal, although not necessarily the teller’s personal experience. They can also be historical or a bit of a tall tale. The story is aimed at a person or persons preparing to go somewhere or do something, and is presented as a warning or a tale of woe.

Pregnant moms and couples often encounter Worm in the Apple Stories, especially at parties or gatherings. The teller will approach the pregnant woman or couple and launch into an account of something difficult, painful, or terrifying that happened to them or someone else.  A bit of drama and emotion is usually part of the mix.  It might go something like “My sister tried natural birth and she screamed for 48 hours… or my friend wanted an epidural but nothing worked then she fell off the bed, ripped out her IV lines…   You might think I’m exaggerating, but I’ve heard both of those stories told in detail with lots more drama and promised pain.

Let’s be clear, I’m not talking about discussing aspects of birth or sharing birth experiences in a caring and authentic way.  These stories are told to get attention, raise emotions or for the enjoyment of the teller. I taught childbirth classes for a couple years and was a doula for decades.  Many parents told me about these stories and how it caused them distress.  Sometimes the distress manifested as nightmares or self-doubt, other times they became nagging memories that accompanied them to labor or early parenting. And just like a worm in an apple, they damage some of the fruit (experience).

Another example of this type of toxic tale is given when a person or people are going into something new.  It might be a planned vacation, starting school, or a new job or adventure.  The enthusiastic listeners will hear stories about tragedy, hardship, or sorrow that happened to someone else.  I once was told about a shark attack when I was headed for a vacation. The attack happened a decade before and not exactly where I swam, but I found myself checking the water and tensing up at the thought each time I went into the water.

These stories are usually not told to purposely ruin your experience; I believe they are usually told to draw attention.  The toxins released by these tales may be minor, although for some, they linger.  If you hear someone starting a wormy tale, you can stop them or walk away.  If you have heard one of these tales and you’re having trouble shaking off the negative images, seek out positive stories and/or information to put things in a proper prospective.

Toxic Tales-Bigotry and Prejudice

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A couple people have told me that all stories are neutral, they can be good or bad, it just depends on how you tell it.  Although that does apply to many examples and it might make people feel good, it’s not true.  There are some stories that are hurtful and harmful no matter how they are told. Some stories are weaponized and others infused (sometimes unconsciously) with hurtful elements that define the story. Good examples of inherently harmful stories are Tales filled with Bigotry or Prejudice.

Let’s look at two types of prejudicial stories:

  1. Stories created especially to promote and increase hatred of a specific group of people.
  2. Stories with characters that encourage and promote negative images or beliefs around a specific group of people.

Stories that Promote Hate

Example – Blood Libel

This ‘traditional tale’ has been told and retold for centuries. Specific names and places change with time but the plot is consistent.  This anti-sematic story usually begins with the death or disappearance of a non-Jewish child.  Then the discovery of some evidence is found that ties the death to the Jewish community because they needed the victim’s blood to make matzah or wine for a holiday or ritual. This is one of history’s cruel ironies because Jewish law prohibits murder, sacrifice, and consumption of blood.  (note- that’s why kosher meat is salted after it is butchered-to draw out the blood.)

One of the earliest examples of the story can be traced back to 1144 in England.  The story then spread through Europe and beyond.  The myth has been used to justify violence against Jews, leading to the deaths of hundreds of men and women. Unfortunately this story hasn’t  gone away and has been mentioned as recently as 2014 when terrorists sited blood libel as the reason for a shooting in synagogue in Israel.

 

Stories that infuse Negative Stereotypes into a specific group or race:

Example – Little Black Sambo

Little Black Sambo was written by Helen Bannerman in 1899.  The illustrations, some story elements, and names of the three main characters – Little Black Sambo, Black Mumbo, and Black Jumbo – are especially offensive. Although the story isn’t inherently racist, the hurtful images linger and have taken on significance as racist symbols. A new version of the story was released in 1996 with new names and pictures, but many objected saying the story carried too much hateful history.  I suppose you could argue that this story can be retold, but only by changing the elements that connect it to the original story.  By doing that, you’re creating a different story.

Some stories carry histories of hurt that are not easily forgotten.  I’d like to take it one step further.  Maybe they shouldn’t be forgotten.  Are we ignoring or glossing over this history of hatred by changing names, titles, and plot elements of stories that carried prejudicial messages?

 

(note: I considered adding pictures of the cover of Little Black Sambo but decided against it.  I thought it might be hurtful or triggering to some of my blog readers.  If you’d like to see the varied art, search google images using the book’s title.)

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to My Weekly Blog

lost-1605501_1920I started a new series for this blog just a little over a year ago.  I had finished the series on “Junk Stories” and was ready to begin a new series on Toxic Tales: Stories That Cause Harm.  I wrote an outline, began research, and started the first article.

…And then…I stopped.

I stopped working on the series and the blog.  I continued creating spoken word stories and other written content, but the blog drifted into silence.  At first I thought about the content but procrastinated.  Eventually I pushed it out of my mind.

Today is the December 17th, 2018, two weeks before the year is over.  I opened my blog this morning and looked at the picture.  Whatever blocked me from writing a year ago is still here.  I looked at the picture and went about my work until midday when I finally read the last article.  I agree with everything I wrote, so why am I still pushing against writing this series?

Here’s what I’ve come up.

Art is fun.  All art forms are fun to create, experience, and enjoy, and it’s easy to just leave it there.  Stories fill up a lot of our time.  We listen, tell, write, watch, and read stories.  There’s a part of me that just wants to enjoy the story and not think too hard. If I admit (especially on a public blog) that stories can be harmful, I need to take responsibility when I encounter toxic tales. Part of me just wants to have fun, but another (wiser) part of me knows better.

So I’m stepping forward.  Over the next few weeks I’ll explore how stories can be harmful or dangerous. I hope you’ll join me in this (sometimes scary) exploration.

Toxic Stories: Stories That Cause Harm

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The story is the most powerful form of communication. This idea not only applies to verbal and written communications but other types of human expression as well.  If a story can be infused into other forms of communication such as  the music, visual art, and dance, they will be more accessible and memorable.

The story structure with its beginning, middle, and end is sticky and approachable. As children, we are drawn to story. When we grow old, we remember and find purpose through our stories. During every stage of our development stories wait for us and we search them out to be entertained, to understand, and to be understood. Stories connect us as individuals, communities, and societies.  Stories allow us to form identities on many levels.

Yep, stories are powerful…

But that doesn’t mean they are always good.

This very powerful form of expression and communication can be used for good and for bad—no, not just bad, some stories can be downright evil.  In my last series of articles, I wrote about junk stories: these stories fill you up like junk food, and if over consumed can affect your mental, emotional, and spiritual growth.  This new series will focus on toxic tales: stories that can cause harm.

We can often look back in time and identify stories in history, literature,writing, and folklore that generated hate, self-loathing, and confusion, but when they are presented as popular culture or “the next big thing,” it’s often difficult for the target audience to understand how toxic a tale can be.

I’m not suggesting that stories, movies, books, or shows should be banned.  Banned content often becomes more popular, besides, poisonous prose is often embraced.  The best way to protect yourself from toxic tales is to learn how to identify it and then refrain from creating, consuming, and/or promoting it.

I will focus on one form of toxic tales at a time focusing on my experience storytelling and story coaching.  Please send me your thoughts about different types of toxic tales…and I encourage you to list specific movies, stories, shows, and books.

 

Next: Toxic Tale #1-Promoting Hate through Discrimination

Weening off Junk Stories (Article 6 in a series of 8)

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I’ve identified junk stories and their risks in earlier articles in this series.  Now it’s time to discuss ways to cut back on an over-saturated diet of junk stories. Junk stories, just like junk food are easy to consume and over indulge.  Many of us wake up and discover we are bloated in junk stories and don’t know how to stop.  Since junk stories come in different forms and we listen, read, and tell stories in different ways, let me suggest several different ways to ween off junk stories.

  1. Come out of isolation – If you are watching shows or movies alone, invite friends or family to sit and watch with you. If you are binge reading junk on line or in print, join a reading group or ask a friend to read what you’re reading.  The very act of sharing will expand the quality of your experience and often encourage exploration into other content.
  2. Investigate the other side – The 24-hour news cycle generates a lot of junk. Most so-called news outlets generate content heavily weighted to one side or the other, seasoned with generous amounts of anger, arrogance, prejudice, and righteousness.  The story format creates sticky content that easily provokes strong feelings, but the imbalanced content greatly reduces the value of stories.  Challenge yourself and seek out the other side (or sides) of the story. As you begin to question the validity of lop-sided news, individual stories will gain complexity – a storytelling equivalent to nutritional value.
  3. Try something new – Variety is said to be the spice of life, but we are often reluctant to change, even if we know the change is for our own good. Familiar might be boring, but it’s also safe and reassuring.  We crave repetition, but we don’t want to be bored so we seek out binge content so we can space out.  Make a contract with yourself to watch, read, or listen to something new for every repeat or repetitive show.
  4. Challenge yourself – Easy isn’t always good. Step out of your comfort zone and include a few stories every week or month that takes effort to understand and digest.  Just as a healthy diet must include complex carbohydrates and lean proteins, a healthy story diet should include quality content that pushes you.
  5. Don’t forget to play and have fun – Quality isn’t dull and great stories can be fun. Give yourself permission to play.

Next Blog: Where to find nutritious stories.