Category Archives: toxic tales

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 – TOTS (Too Often Told Story)

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By Rivka Willick

Art in all its forms is a powerful force that can inspire, educate, lead, entertain, and heal.  This is especially true of stories. They can be like a medication that can restore and rebuild us, but too much of certain medications (or certain stories) can do harm.  There’s no formula, it varies depending on the story and person. Let’s take a look how a story can become toxic from over telling.

Getting Stuck in a Story Let’s go to history and classic American drama for a dynamic example.  James O’Neill was a very gifted actor who shared the bill with the legendary Edwin Booth. He played Macduff to Booth’s Macbeth, Laertes to his Hamlet, and Iago to his Othello, often receiving better reviews. He played Marc Antony, Brutus, and Romeo consistently receiving great press. Then he was offered the role of Edmund Dantes in a theatrical version of The Count of Monte Cristo which was a smash hit in 1883.  It meant a consistent stream of money and work for the next 30 years.  He tried a couple other roles, but Dantes was a reliable meal ticket and a sticky trap.  In time the audiences only wanted to see him in that single play which became a straitjacket that eroded his talent and led to depression. This sad but true story was woven into his son Eugene O’Neil’s greatest play, A Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

It’s easy to get stuck by writing the same story over and over again, or performing that story everyone wants to hear in a storytelling performance.  Motivational speakers often find themselves riding high, then suddenly the offers and recognition drops. Although audiences might weary of these over told stories, the teller also may lose the passion to tell it.

The Painful Story You Don’t Want to Tell Again   Telling or exploring a painful or traumatic event in story form is often empowering and can be healing, but telling it too many times can reverse the positive effects.  I remembers sitting with a storyteller during one of the annual National Storytelling Networks Conventions.  She began telling me about her college storytelling program, but quickly got upset.  During her first year she developed a story based on some very painful personal experiences.  She got positive feedback from her teachers and fellow students, but wanted to try something else.  She told me her teachers, but they wanted her to stay with this story which might lead to opportunities; that’s when she broke into tears.  She said she couldn’t control her emotions after telling the tale and she needed a break.  If a story is causing pain, stop telling it, find another way or another part of the story to tell, or take a break. Reliving a trauma over and over in the shape of a story can stimulate painful feelings and work against healing.

Giving up.  Many artists, speakers and writers find their groove and then get too comfortable. The opportunities to try new stories and ideas are still there, but the teller stops thinking, stops exploring. Trying new material and new approaches is essential in all art and creation.  When you stop exploring you stop growing.  What’s that great line from Shawshank Redemption?… “Get busy living or get busy dying.”

 

Rivka coaches online, does workshops, and all day/multi day intensives.  Rivka@SimplyExtraordinaryTales.com

Toxic Tales – The Lemming Lie

lemming-763780_1920This is the third article in a series on Toxic Tales.  Now it’s gonna get messy.

Have you ever heard the phrase – “Don’t be a lemming” or “If you friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?”  Up until a few months ago, I thought lemmings were mammals that willingly followed the group and would jump off a cliff just to follow the crowd.  I grew up “knowing” that fact.  A few months ago I was reading an article in Smithsonian Magazine about white owls and stumbled onto a section about lemmings, their major food source.  The journalist threw in a line about a nature documentary that staged the mass lemming death to create a dramatic ending. Huh? What?

I rolled up my sleeves and investigated the mystery of The Lemming Lie.

Here’s what I found. Back in 1957 Disney produced a nature documentary called White Wilderness about the arctic. The producer needed a dramatic ending so he herded a group of lemmings and drove them off a cliff.  Families gathered every Sunday to watch the Wonderful World of Disney, so when the documentary was aired millions saw a group of gerbil like rodents tumbling off a series of rocky cliffs, many falling to their deaths, others being swept away into the ocean.  White Wilderness won the 1958 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

Animal Planets lists Lemmings Suicide as the #1 animal myth.

The Lemming Lie really bugged me and I wasn’t sure why.  After all I’m a storyteller, I tell and write lots of fiction.  As a story coach I help lots of folks find and tell their stories. Here’s one of my favorite lines, “know the difference between truth and facts.”  I tell folks to not get hung up on listing every event or even focusing on the right order of things.  But this is different.

Blatantly creating a false fact (and not disclosing its falseness) is toxic.  Today there is an abundant use of story in TED style talks, as a teaching tool, and as a motivational device.  Factual stories are now told everywhere. I heard a local politician tell an emotional story that swayed the audience, but I spotted the fabricated fact.  Some might argue, it’s only a story, and even if it is presented as a true story, we shouldn’t be gullible, but I disagree.

Since stories are sticky causing us to remember them longer than other forms of communication, the false facts embedded in these stories are also remembered.  There is a difference between fiction and non-fiction.  Listeners also recognize simplifications or generalizations in stories, however if the teller, writer, or film documentor is presenting something as fact, which he or she knows is a lie, the story will chisel doubt, skepticism, or false ideas into the audience.

Have you discovered a Lemming Lie…something you accepted as truth in a story, book, or movie, which is false?  I’d love to hear about it.

Here’s a link to the clip about lemmings from White Wilderness https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AOOs8MaR1YM

Do you want to work with Rivka. Check out her Story Coaching page?  http://www.simplyextraordinarytales.com/story-coaching/

 

(note-I read a lot about the lemming myth and found one video that sited a cartoon published a couple years before the documentary was released. Since documentaries take time to create, I’m not sure which came first, but using a cartoon character as source material to justify staging a “true” event, seems like a stretch to me. This illustrates the problem.  Once a lie is embedded into our social consciousness, it’s hard to let it go.)