Some of you may remember the April 2015 Munk debate – a -semi annual debate that takes place in Toronto with an audience of approximately 3000 on a topic of current public interest. That particular year the debate question was whether the West should engage with Russia or not. Author Anne Applebaum and Russian chess champion and Kremlin critic Garry Kasparov argued for eschewing engagement to punish Putin and the Russian government for its supposed sins. Professor Stephen F. Cohen and Russian journalist Vladimir Posner argued for engagement.
Unfortunately, the audience was swayed by Applebaum and Kasparov and voted for non-engagement. The result of this always bothered me. How is it that an anti-Russia propagandist like Applebaum and a Neocon apologist like Kasparov can beat out one of the best Russia Studies academics in the U.S. and a renowned Russian journalist? In a rational world, Cohen and Posner should have been able to mop the floor with the likes of Applebaum and Kasparov without even breaking a sweat. What happened?
As a life-long lover of literature and someone who has tried my own hand at writing fiction (I have two trunk novels), I have a theory as to why this happened.
There are a small percentage of people, often scholarly types or journalists, who are swayed by and believe in the power of rational argument and the recitation of facts and figures to change people’s minds on any given issue. But the truth is – that is not actually how most people’s minds are changed. Humans evolved as storytellers, from hieroglyphics on caves to oral tradition and the written word, all cultures across time have told stories. Storytelling is how we have imparted ethical guidelines as well as practical information needed for survival.
In the Ted Talk below, author and writing coach Lisa Cron discusses the history and science behind the power of narrative and why it can transform people’s views where logical argument alone cannot. She gives an excellent example of how literature changed far more minds on a critical issue of 20th century American political import than any logical argument. Hint: most of you have read the novel and/or seen the movie. She also cautions people to be aware of the narratives they are being fed by the larger culture and whether those narratives are desirable or harmful.
Getting back to the Munk debate, I think that Applebaum and Kasparov understood the art of storytelling – albeit in a manipulative fashion. Their narrative of Russia and the context of U.S.-Russia relations in the post-Soviet era is very distorted but they managed to spin a compelling story: Kasparov with his framing of himself as an innocent every man up against a big bad bully named Putin and Applebaum with her framing of the noble west who has run out of patience with the incorrigible troublemaker who must be made to answer for his dangerous shenanigans. There is a recognizable protagonist and a recognizable antagonist in their story as well as a call to action.
Cohen and Posner, on the other hand, relied on the presentation of facts and logic. But they hadn’t figured out a compelling counter-narrative or story in which to place those facts. Consequently, the audience went with a story they understood. It was also a story they easily recognized because they had already been primed with lots of propaganda from the media they consume to do so.
I tend to think that academics and journalists who speak the truth about Russia and foreign affairs – while they serve a very important purpose – are not going to be able to turn the ship around on their own. They are going to have to find people in the arts – novelists, filmmakers, musicians, playwrights – to partner with to change hearts and minds through the power of narrative.