Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The power of story

Rod Dreher on a serious weakness of modern conservatism:
.... Argument has its place, but story is what truly moves the hearts and minds of men. The power of myth—which is to say, of storytelling—is the power to form and enlighten the moral imagination, which is how we learn right from wrong, the proper ordering of our souls, and what it means to be human. Russell Kirk, the author of The Conservative Mind...considered tending the moral imagination to be “conservatism at its highest.”

Through the stories we tell, we come to understand who we are and what we are to do. This is true for both individuals and communities.

Stories, as carriers of ideas, have consequences. Lincoln, upon meeting Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe, supposedly remarked, “Is this the little woman who made the great war?”

Kirk understood that the world might be won or lost on front porches, in bedrooms at night, around family hearths, in movie theaters and anywhere young people hear, see, or read the stories that fill and illuminate their moral imaginations. If you do not give them good stories, they will seek out bad ones.

“And the consequences will be felt not merely in their failure of taste,” Kirk said, “but in their misapprehension of human nature, lifelong; and eventually, in the whole tone of a nation.”

True story: in 2003, I watched a segment of ABC’s “PrimeTime Live” in which Diane Sawyer profiled the quest of a gay male couple to adopt a baby from an unwed teen mother. The couple was plainly unprepared to raise a child, and though their fatherhood experiment failed, Sawyer concluded her charming piece with unambiguous sympathy for them and for the cause of gay adoption.

I knew that night that we were going to have gay marriage in this country. The news media were only going to tell one kind of story about marriage, family, and homosexuality—and eventually this narrative, repeated often enough, would determine politics and policy. Ten years later, with the false, distorted, and simplistic anti-gay narratives of the past having been wholly replaced by false, distorted, and simplistic pro-gay narratives, a cultural revolution has substantially been achieved. Stories have consequences. ....

.... As a bookish kid struggling to find a place in a world of hunting, fishing, and athletics, I was offered refuge in art, literature, and music [by] my ninth-grade English teacher. She was quite liberal, but she was the only person I knew who shared the passion for creativity awakening inside me. I came to believe that all people who were serious about art were naturally liberal—and I became liberal too, for years. Over the years, I’ve seen that most of my conservative friends who are artistically inclined became so in spite of their conservatism—that is, despite the fact that the right-wingers they knew disdained the arts as effete and impractical. A love for art and literature was not part of the conservative story, as they received it. ....

The point is not that art and narrative are designed to manipulate, but rather that stories are unavoidably bearers of worldview. This fact leads some on the right to conclude, crudely, that the solution is to raise up a generation to create art infused with conservative ideology—as if culture-making, of which storytelling is key, could be reduced to ideological utility. ....

Stories work so powerfully on the moral imagination because they are true to human experience in ways that polemical arguments are not. And because the moral imagination often determines which intellectual arguments—political, economic, theological, and so forth—will be admitted into consideration, storytelling is a vital precursor to social change. .... [more]
Dreher refers to Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, a book that I read one summer between college years. That book was almost as important in its effect on my worldview as any other non-scriptural influence, including C.S. Lewis. Kirk believed in the importance of story and, although better known for his political writing, he also wrote pretty good fiction. The Conservative Mind was originally published almost exactly sixty years ago in the summer of 1953 and in recognition of its importance The University Bookman (which Kirk also founded) has published a series of essays.

Story Lines, Not Party Lines | The American Conservative