The Power of Story to Change Hearts and Minds Where Facts & Logic Cannot

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.

8 thoughts on “The Power of Story to Change Hearts and Minds Where Facts & Logic Cannot”

  1. I agree with you wholeheartedly! We need new narratives to inspire the change. Dividing people never works for the good of the whole society, only a few benefit from that.

  2. A vey original insight, Natylie, which I hope will have long legs. The difficulty for us ‘cerebreals’ is that we are usually not gifted for story-telling. How to overcome this limitation?

  3. The Russian narrative is indeed everywhere in the media. I often say that all the reporters, the Applebaums, Sangers, Ignatiuses, have little stickers on their computers:

    Russian Aggression!
    Annexed Crimea!
    Poisoned the Skripals!
    Invaded Syria!
    Shot Down MH-17!
    Covet Ukraine and the Baltics!

    And on and on they pound these themes and others, the results of which can be seen in the comments sections of our two major papers.

  4. Do we know that the results of this debate indicate how much a randomly chosen Canadian audience, for example, might be turned by the points presented? How much of the audience knew that it would be the change in opinion which determined the wining side in the debate, and therefore, in effect, misstating one’s prior opinion could overstate the effect of the debate? Canada has declined in recent decades from a peace keeper and voice of reason in international affairs. How much of this is due to their Ukrainian immigrants, who’ve corrupted Canada in the way that wealthy Latin American immigrants (from Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, etc.) have corrupted American politics. Whether or not the Ukrainians in Canada packed the debate, I believe the Ted talker underestimates the force of mere repetition in the brain washing of the Western mind. Even a work of art with screenplay by W. Shakespeare and score by J.S. Bach would be overwhelmed by the endless repetition of NPR . We need people to turn off their radios and tvs and to do some quiet, critical reading about what their country has been doing to the world, especially in their lifetimes, under their noses.

  5. I was one of the concerned American citizens paying attention to the event six years ago and being frustrated by it, but not surprised.
    I agree with the thesis of this article completely.
    However, at the time I found out the result of the debate 6 years ago, I had also some other thoughts, too:
    1. I don’t regard the Canadians highly, based on the facts that Canada is not even a democratic republic, but a part of a constitutional monarchy. The major historical teaching in school completely follows the doctrine of the British Empire. Most of the Canadians don’t know the history of world from the peoples’ point of view, let along the Russian history.
    2. While Prof. Cohen and Journalist Posner were debating based on facts and logic, Applebaum and Paskarov were doing pure Goebbels’ propaganda.
    3. What Cohen and Posner should have done is to bring the discussion up to the level of global strategic thinking and the advancement of human civilization, to emphasize the importance of having Russia as a partner of US, in the past and in the future of world prosperity, which was somehow ignored.

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